Q&A: Why is it “a neck of the woods”?

Why is it a neck of the woods?
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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. Neck minnit…

Q: Hi AWC, I’ve been wondering about the phrase, “my neck of the woods” – where does it come from?

A: Well, it certainly doesn’t come from your neck of the woods.

Q: Sure, but WHY are we calling our neighbourhood a “neck” in the first place? It’s causing a bottleneck in my brain!

A: Fair enough. Well, first up, we’re going to stick our necks out and say that the Americans are responsible for this particular idiom – what Macquarie Dictionary defines as a colloquial term for “a specific area or particular place”.

Q: Yeah, so THIS neck of the woods. Or HER neck of the woods. But since when do woods have necks?

A: This is a valid question, because even a hard-working word like “neck” struggles to answer it. Beyond the obvious “thing that attaches the head to the torso” meaning, a neck can also be the narrow top part of a bottle, the slender part of a violin, a narrow strip of land between water or even the part where the head of a golf club joins to the shaft.

Q: Oh! Golf clubs! The neck of the woods! We got it!

A: Nice try Tiger, but nope. After all, what about the irons and the putter? The term definitely does not come from golf.

Q: Fine. But now I just really want to know.

A: It was the early European settlers in America who coined the phrase in the late 1700s. One theory favoured by historians suggests that the “neck” in question was actually translated from the local Algonquian First Nations word “naiack”, meaning “corner”. 

Q: Well, it IS a little corner of the world.

A: Another theory is more about the woods themselves. You see, in those early days of settlement, forest was a dominant feature of the landscape.

Q: Pffft, yeah I know that. I’ve seen Pocahontas. And seasons 4 and 5 of Outlander.

A: Yes, well, those early settlers were actually fond of calling ANY narrow area of land a “neck” – whether it was a meadow or wooded area. A neck of woods would have contained plenty of timber for building houses and so on, while still being close to open land for crops or grazing. That’s likely why people lived in a “neck of the woods”.

Q: Yeah, that makes sense to me.

A: Since the 1550s, the word “neck” had already been in use as that geographic term to define a narrow strip of land between water. The Americans just expanded it to be any narrow strip of land in general.

Q: So instead of having water on each side, it had trees. Or meadows. Or oppressed First Nations tribes.

A: Precisely!

Q: And even after they chopped down all the trees and replaced them with fast food outlets and shopping malls, the idiom stuck?

A: Well yes, because that’s what idioms do – remaining frozen in time. The woods may have gone from that “neck of the woods”, but the phrase remains.

Q: So it’s just used to describe ANY specific place then?

A: That’s right. It doesn’t have to be YOUR local neighbourhood. You might be out hiking in the middle of nowhere and run into your friend from yoga. “What are you doing in this neck of the woods?” you might ask. No ownership, just an acknowledgement of this specific part of the world.

Q: Hmmm, what WERE they doing all the way out there? It seems more than just a coincidence. Seems like a stalker/murder situation…

A: You’ll be pleased to know that everyone returned home from the imaginary hike just fine.

Q: Okay, good. Although I’m thinking that the next yoga class could be awkward. After all, it’s a downward dog-eat-dog world out there…

A: Groan. So, while we’re talking about necks, would you like to know about some other neck phrases?

Q: Ooh, yes please!

A: The term “neck and neck” – meaning equal pace – comes from horse-racing (for obvious reasons), as early as 1799. Meanwhile, to “stick one’s neck out” – as in to take a risk – appeared first in America around 1919. Some say it was to do with turkeys and chickens sticking their necks out on the chopping block OR a turtle sticking its neck out of the safety of its shell.

Q: Wearing a turtleneck can certainly be risky if you’re not careful to check the weather.

A: Indeed. Meanwhile, the “bottleneck” you mentioned earlier was originally applied around 1900 to narrow entrances that slowed traffic, before expanding to mean anything “obstructing the flow” by the 1920s.

Q: Oh, bottlenecks can be SUCH a pain in the neck!

A: Well THAT term arrived about 1900 and was actually intended to replace people using the more vulgar “pain in the butt/ass” which was already very common at the time!

Q: Oh, and speaking of traffic bottlenecks, what about “rubbernecking” – like when you slow down to look at an incident?

A: This term started its life in the 1890s as someone who listened to other people’s conversations, craning their neck in curiosity. However, by the 1930s it was more synonymous with curiously craning your neck out your car window!

Q: Finally, what about “redneck”?

A: Ahh yes, often heard saying, “You’re not from this neck of the woods, are you boy?” before running you out of town with pitchforks. This informal and usually derogatory term is typically used to describe a working-class white person from the southern US, yet was uncommon before around 1915. 

Q: But why is the neck red?

A: Some say it’s from being easy to anger, but historically it’s more likely related to their pale necks burning in the sun. South African boers also used “rednecks” to describe Englishmen of a similar pale complexion.

Q: Well, we covered this topic in “breakneck speed” today!

A: We sure did. And by the way. “Breakneck” in that sense has been around since the 1560s – clearly the horses had enough horsepower to do serious damage even back then!

Q: Oh, before we go, have we got time for a joke about a giraffe’s neck?

A: No sorry, it’s too long.

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

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