Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Farms Were Not Always What We Think They Are

Here's an etymology fact you may not have known (I didn't): the noun farm comes from Old French, ferme, "a rent or lease." It originally meant "fixed payment" rather than a place where you grow food. It comes from the Latin word firma, which also meant fixed payment, which itself came from firmare (to fix, settle, strengthen) and firmus (strong, stable).

This English meaning is from the 13th century. (Farm comes from the same root as the noun firm, meaning "business house," which dates from 1744, though it came to its present meaning along a different path.)

According to etymonline, the sense of farm meaning "tract of land" was first recorded in the 14th century, but "cultivated land" didn't come into use until 1520. The verb we all use today (to farm crops) didn't come into use until 1719. There was an earlier verb form that meant to rent or lease, and the current phrase "to farm out" is a remnant of that.

So farm, in its original sense, was all about being in debt to or renting from a land owner; essentially serfdom or tenancy. Serf comes from the Latin word servum or "slave," but it lost that meaning by the 18th century, when it had come to mean the "lowest class of cultivators of the soil in continental European countries."

Farmer, ironically, was originally the person who collected the taxes (14th century). The agricultural sense of farmer became common in the very late 16th century, when it replaced the magnificent word churl. These days, churl is an insult, but its earlier meaning was simply "man of the common people" or "country man."

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