At the Wording Desk

Increase your English vocabulary by learning about rare but nifty autumn words like foison

Bill Casselman

Autumn’s mellow advent arrays her wares: fair fall weather of a fall fair, crisp polychrome of maple leafage, rusting fern fronds, bristling blades of grass, chrome-yellow bracts encircling vanished flowers. These come to eye.

But some autumnals come to lips: ripe pears, plum juice on chin, malic flesh of apples, haws and hips, grains and seeds, pomes and drupes: plump flauntings of October fruitage.  

Other fall gifts come to mind, namely, ingathering of the words of early autumn; and chief among these for me is foison which still means ‘plentiful harvest.’

Pronounced FOYZ-un, this word of autumn bounty is now, unfortunately, marked archaic or old-fashioned in most dictionaries. Foison came into English after the Norman Conquest of 1066 CE and means ‘plentiful harvest.’ Its root is Old French foison ‘pouring forth (of crops)’ ultimately from Latin fusio, fusionis ‘a pouring’ from the Latin verb base fundere ‘to pour,’ which gives us many derivatives in English like confound, confute, to fuse together, nuclear fusion, futile, perfuse, profound, refund and transfusion.

Foison’s earliest meanings in English made it a simple synonym for abundance. In Scotland, until well into the 19th century, foison signified strength and vigour: “He’s a wee mahn, wi’ nae foison in him.”

I like the word foison and feel it ought to be revived and be available for use, as in these three exemplary sentences:

That year, lucky weather, hard work and the generous foison of the apple crop saved the orchard from financial distress.

A foison of mutual happiness swept their marriage through a thirty-year voyage.

In ancient Roman religion, one of the earth goddesses of fertility was Ops (Latin ops, opis ‘abundance, goods, riches’) whose annual foison included late harvest and whose sceptre was often one fat stalk of cobbed corn.

This word naming a style of drying grain like wheat in the field is chiefly British. The Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary provides a good, clear definition “a pile or assemblage of usually 8 to 16 sheaves of grain (such as wheat) set up in a field with the butt ends down and one or two of the sheaves often broken to serve as a cap to protect the tops from weather.” But that definition is in M-W under the American term for the same harvest technique, shock. Yes, this shock = stook. Teutonic stook stems directly from a Middle Low German form like Stuke ‘pile, tree stump, sleeve.’ To stook is the verb. It was widely used in Canada. I’ve never heard it from an American wheat farmer.

A Shock of Wheat
The American term is British in origin and appears to have been first an actual counting of the number of small wheat sheaves combined into a shock. This shock was borrowed into English from Middle Dutch where schoc and schocke mean ‘group of sixty,’ hence any ‘big pile’ or ‘heap.’

This obsolete British term names a cone-shaped pile of wheat in the field but is apparently stacked differently than a stook is formed.

This plucky word is now confined chiefly to British dialects but once it named any fodder for cattle collected from a field after harvest. Sometimes stover was stubble from such fields mixed with hay splinters from a threshing-floor, clover-hay and straw or dried cornstalks. I have heard it in northern England also said aloud by a mother to answer a small child’s question: “What’s fer dinner, Moom?” “Fer the likes of yeeou, bairn? Stover!”

Etymology of Stover
First we need to define a term in linguistics that names how a short, unaccented vowel at the start of a word is, in many languages including English, often lost. This is called aphesis. Stover is an aphetic result of estovers, an English word borrowed from Anglo-French. Its English pronunciation is es-STOV-ers. So you can see how that initial ‘e’ might go unspoken. In Old French estover, estovoir meant ‘to be necessary’ so that English estovers were ‘necessary things,’ just as fodder for livestock was a necessary commodity. The Old French form issued from a Late Latin phrase est opus ‘there is need’ or ‘it is necessary.’

Sukkot סוכות

While Sukkoth or Sukkot is a Jewish harvest festival of ancient autumns, the word is encountered frequently enough in English print to justify its inclusion here. The biblical book of Leviticus (23:34) calls it hag ha-sukkot ‘feast of huts.’ Calling it Feast of Booths or Feast of Tabernacles is a rabbinical alternative. Little huts are made in pious recall of the Jews wandering in the wilderness after the Egyptian Exodus where, in the desert, they often worshipped in tents or quickly-built huts made of available material like palm branches. A tabernaculum is a later Latin name for a tent sanctuary carried by the Israelites during the Exodus as a holy dwelling place for God and as a tent of worship, also called a tent of meeting.

Origin of Tabernacle

Tabernaculum is a Latin diminutive meaning 'little hut.' Tabernaculum is a Late Latin translation of the biblical Hebrew אהל מועד  ōhel mōʽēd  'tent of meeting' which named Moses' tent or a portable sanctuary made of a rectangular wooden frame covered with cloth curtains. Tabernacle may translate another Hebrew word מִשְׁכַּן‎‎ mishkan 'residence, dwelling place.'

The root of tabernaculum is Latin taberna which meant to the ancient Romans 'booth, shop, inn,' a variant of traberna from Latin trabs, trabis meaning 'roof, roof-beam.' Taberna gives us our word tavern through a Middle English borrowing from its French form taverne.

Bill Casselman, September 28, 2017

My Text Copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman