Swamp especially and its loose synonym, fen, are used as metaphors frequently in contemporary English prose.
“Her office was a swamp of shortcomings, failures and inefficiency.”
“A villain without a conscience, that man is a fen of moral failure.”
“England hath need of thee: she is a fen of stagnant waters,” wrote the poet William Wordsworth in 1807.
This time we slog through the mucky bog of swamp synonyms, both common and recondite, examining the origin of everyday words like bayou, bog, marsh, muskeg, quagmire, slough and sump, as well as delving into the source of technical terms like palustral, palustrine and paludal.
The word swamp entered Middle English from a Scots dialect adjective swampe that meant ‘swollen’ or ‘hollow.’
Marsh & Marish
Marsh is perhaps the second-most common term, after the most common term, swamp. Marsh has always sounded to me to be a bog of lesser goopiness than a swamp. Marsh is of Germanic provenance. Compare modern German Marsch, Danish marsk and Dutch mars. Although now branded archaic, English once had a disyllabic noun and adjective form, namely marish ‘pertaining to a swamp.’ 1667 In his Paradise Lost Milton writes of “Ev'ning Mist Ris'n from a River o're the marish glides.”
The French word for swamp is marais. Le Marais “the swamp” is the name of a famous historic district of Paris, originally swampy ground cleared and drained for buildings as the city grew, the word derived from the same ancient root as English marsh, namely the Proto-Indo-European etymon *mari ‘lake, sea” whose descendants include the Latin word for sea mare and its derivatives in modern English like maritime and marine.
What is the difference between a swamp and a marsh? Both are areas of vegetation susceptible to flooding. A swamp is a place where water-covered plants are woody. Trees such as mangroves or cypress are common. A marsh has no woody plants but instead supports saltmarsh grasses, reeds and or sedges. Marshes are not as deep as swamps.
Swamps give names to some of earth’s places. Georgia and Florida’s Okeefenokee means in the Creek language “land of trembling earth.” The country of Sudan takes its name from a large swamp, one of the world’s largest wetlands, the Sudd. The Arabic word sudd is derived from sadd سد meaning ‘barrier’ or ‘obstruction.’ It has become a technical term in hydrology and geomorphology where a sudd is a large, solid floating vegetation island or mat.
The chief import of bayou is sluggishly flowing water, in a channel, a river delta, a slow creek, or a swamp. The word is Louisiana French bayouque, possibly borrowed from Choctaw *bayok or bo’k ‘creek, river.
Spongy ground badly drained where a human or animal might sink is a bog, often thick with soggy plant residues (hence peat bog) whose characteristic plants are acid-lovers like sedges, heaths and sphagnum mosses. It a Celtic adjective meaning ‘soft,’ as in Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic where words for swamp are bogach and boglach.
Low, water-sogged peaty land, often subject to flooding, is named from Old English fenn ‘marsh, mud, dirt,’ related to Old High German fenna ‘marsh,’ Old Norse fen, Gothic fani ‘clay,’ and Sanskrit paṅka ‘mud, mire.’
This Algonquian word has been in English since the dawn of the nineteenth century to name any northern peat bog with tussocks where small trees may take root and plenty of partly decayed boreal vegetable matter like peat abounds. The Ojibwa word for grassy bog is muskeg, Cree is mashkek and in the Fox language bog is maskyägi.
When you take a hopefully tentative step into a quagmire, your shoed or booted foot sinks slowly into its boggy mire. The first element of quagmire is mysterious. We do not know its precise origin. It may merely be an imitation of the sound of a human foot splorping into muck. It may be a variant of quake as in the quaking earth of a bog. The second element, -mire, is also a word by itself, mire, directly descending from Middle English, as a word gift from the Vikings, whose language of Old Norse has mȳrr ‘swamp,’ akin to Old English mōs ‘marsh’ or ‘bog’ and the related word beloved of the Victorian poet Tennyson, mere.
Slough (British pronunciation rhymes with plough; Americans say it to rhyme with slew and there is an English dialect pronunciation “sluff” possibly confused with its lookalike verb to slough (related to Low German sluwe, slu husk, peel, shell) where “sluff” means ‘to discard, shake off an old skin, to shed. Its noun slough refers to the outer skin or tissue cast off by any of several reptiles like snakes and eels.
If you are literate, you must know thisphrase
The classic English reference, which every person who claims literacy in English ought to know, is The Slough of Despond, a fictional swamp of despair, a bog of hopelessness in John Bunyan's allegory The Pilgrim's Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come published in 1678 CE, one of the most significant works of religious literature in English.
Bunyan’s hero, Christian, burdened with self-awareness of his many sins, sinks under their weight in this fen of iniquity. Bunyan describes it this way: “This miry Slough is such a place as cannot be mended; it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run, and therefore is it called the Slough of Despond: for still as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there ariseth in his soul many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place; and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.”
The Slough of Despond may have been inspired by Squitch Fen, a wet and marshy area near John Bunyan’s home, a cottage in Bedfordshire, which Bunyan had to cross weekly on his way to church.
Latin palus, paludis ‘marsh, swamp’
This Latin noun gives three technical adjectives: palustral, palustrine and paludal.
Once common in botany was dubbing a plant that needed wet feet, that is, a marshy, swampy habitat, a palustral.
Today palustrine has replaced palustral as the noun and as an adjective to mean ‘pertaining to a marsh’ or ‘requiring a marshy habitat to thrive.
But, as a careful listener to the apt sound of words, the adjective I prefer is paludal. With its long central vowel extended, paludal better suggests the glutinous muck of a swamp that can seem, after you step into it, to long for your shoes and legs with a muddy erotic need that wants to draw you down and fill your lungs with fatal wet mud.
The root was used in the making of a drug name, Paludrine, during WWII to dub a chemical, proguanil hydrochloride, that once had good use against malaria but is now less than 60% effective, because malaria has grown resistant to the drug after fifty years of use.
A marsh or swamp is today seldom termed a sump. But North Americans know well the sump pump in the basement to rid a house’s foundation of ground water. This is a Germanic relative of swamp, having been altered by what linguists call ablaut. But compare modern German Sumpf ‘marsh.’
I conclude with the cheapest swamp joke I know and one learned at the age of eight.
Question: Where do swamp monsters go on vacation?
Answer: Lake Erie.
I hereby attest that I learned to swim in Lake Erie and have, heretofore, not developed scales.
Bill Casselman, April 15, 2018
Copyright 2018 by William Gordon Casselman
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At the Wording Desk
Increase your knowledge of the origins of English words by learning the provenance of terms like paludal, bog, sump, slough, marsh, sudan and swamp