The Friday Fillip: Ups and Downs

Odd that downs are ups.

Apparently in their full regalia they’re “downlands,” which are open chalk hills: exposed layers of chalk wear away into rounded hills, which then are covered by a thin layer of surface soil and grass. Of course, downs are “dunes” in another context, that being sand. (Not sure how “downs” got associated with racecourses, as in Kentucky’s Churchill Downs; it might have to do with the treeless grassy nature of some English downlands, making them suitable for horse racing.)

We dig holes and make mounds: it’s what human beings do when given a spade and a plot of more or less friable land, the actions actually being one maneuver, because the fill from the hole has to go somewhere and that’s typically a hill. Some of the words for the resulting heaps and hollows are unusual and, so, attractive for that reason. I thought I’d offer up a few of these for your delectation and at the same time point you to a decent website for generally finding out synonyms and related terms, in case relishing rare words isn’t enough for you.

Lets start on the level, though, with a sward, an old word for the skin or surface of the soil. Break the sward and immediately you’ve got two for the price of one: a dip and a hummock. But continue for a while and you might have a swale, which seems fitting for a former sward, the job of this particular lack being to carry away surplus water down a channel where it might be absorbed harmlessly. (Sans swale, we might wind up with a sloughquag or a mire — but I digress.). 

If we let nature do the digging, as it were, particularly with a river, we may eventually inherit dales, which word seem cognate with the German Tal, or valley (as in Neanderthal). On a slightly smaller scale we’d be gifted with dells. Keep the scale but let nature delve (also as a noun, a cavity in the ground) a bit longer and the dell might become a steep-sided dingle — which is a funny thing because the Dingle I know is in fact a tower that stands guard, as it were, over the Northwest Arm in Halifax, proving as with down, perhaps, that up and down are merely perspectives of the same thing.

On the upside we find a lot more differentiation. Easier, I suppose, to spot hills than it is their negative. Thus we have berm, a lovely word for a longish mound used for landscaping; pingos, if you’re up north, where they’ll be rather large conical upthrusts of ice covered with some soil (and, of course, given the yin/yang of this business, further south also a circular depression typically filled with water); further south still you’ll trip over drumlins, formations made up of till left by receding glaciers, and not to be confused with eskers, which seem to have formed within holes inside glacier.

Then there’s a run of -ocks, the result of human work: tussock, hillock, hummock and the like. The suffix is a diminutive — both a hole and a hill at the same time, making the word longer but diminishing too (and does English ever have a lot of diminutives: see here for a list of 50 of them!) which makes me think that there must have once been a tuss or a humm, which according to the OED seems unlikely. At any rate, you rate them by height from hillock, through hummock which gathers vegetation along the way, down to a mere grassy tussock, which seems to be rather like the famous tuffet (small tuft) on which Little Miss Muffet rested. (There appears to be something of an affection in English for ‘t’ words for hills: in addition to tuft, tuffet, tussock, there are tor, tumulus, tump . . . )

The dictionary site I promised you, patient people? It’s OneLook Dictionary Search. Boasting 16 million words from over a thousand dictionaries, it offers you a multitude of ways in and search tools. Simplest might be to reproduce their front page examples:

Example searches
bluebird Find definitions of bluebird
blue* Find words and phrases that start with blue
*bird Find words and phrases that end with bird
bl????rd Find words that start with bl, end with rd, with 4 letters in between
bl*:snow Find words that start with bland have a meaning related to snow
bl*:adjective Find any adjectives that start with bl
*:snow or:snow Find any words related to snow
*:winter sport Find words related to the concept winter sport
**winter** Find phrases that contain the word winter
expand:nasa Find phrases that spell out n.a.s.a.


Try searching *:hill to learn what a dorsum is — or flodden, for that matter. Just watch out for the holes.

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