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New plantings in the wordscape

The many meanings of 'scape.'

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Maybe it's just my family, but I grew up thinking Frederick Law Olmsted was one of the Founding Fathers. Landscape design was as standard a topic of our dinner-table conversation as politics is in other families.

As a teenager I took it for granted that family car trips always involved running commentary and critiques by my mother and my brother of whatever landscaping we happened to drive by. It never struck me as odd until one day when I had a friend along and she pulled me aside to ask, "Do they do this all the time?"

And so I tend to have my antennae out for landscape – as a wordsmith, if not as a gardener. And I've been noticing how "scape" clauses seem to be proliferating, both in number and in meaning, in the language.

Landscape was originally a term of art in two senses: a technical term and one used by painters. It meant a painting showing inland scenery, rather than a view of the sea, or a portrait. The word was borrowed from the Dutch; given how many times Dutch artists painted the sea, they perhaps felt scenes of terra firma needed their own designation.

The Oxford English Dictionary's first recorded use of this sense of landscape goes back to 1598. Two centuries later, seascape made its appearance. Half a century after that, we got cityscape. In 1856, William Thackeray wrote of "a fairyland of frozen land, river, and city-scape." Most of Oxford's cityscape citations are mid-20th century, though.

A contemporary review of a 1960 novel described it as "a cityscape, a rich Dickensian evocation of a decaying, badly blitzed suburb."

"Scape," as a suffix, comes from the Anglo-Saxon side of English. It's related to the "ship" of "friendship," "hardship," or "scholarship." This ship is not necessarily nautical but is a suffix related to shape – it comes from a verb meaning to form or create.


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