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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: From Logs to Log Cabins

Words in the English language come from many different sources, including the professions of early Americans. This article examines words and phrases from the carpentry and lumberjack professions.


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When we try to imagine our country without any permanent buildings gracing its landscapes, it is a difficult task. Looking at colonial communities with their large dwellings, the southern landscapes with the legendary plantations, or even frontier towns with their log cabins, it is hard to picture those areas with nothing but large expanses of forest. But we know that our ancestors had their work cut out for them when they arrived in this virgin country, having to clear the land, build their homes, and create their towns from nothing. And many of those early pioneers were farmers, not carpenters: can you imagine the task they undertook? It is not surprising that this frontier enterprise left us with a wealth of phrases from the building trade, one of the first "professions" of early Americans, whether they liked it or not. Here we will examine some of these words and phrases that, in many cases, have come a long way from their building origins.

Lumber is a word that has its own unusual origin, referring to "pawnshops"! The word "lumber" is from "longobardi" - Italian for "long beards" - a term that was applied to a barbaric invasion of Italy in the 700s. This resulted in the creation of "Lombardy" - a village that became a money-lending center that eventually gave rise to "lombars," the ancient equivalent to our modern-day pawnshops, specializing in used furniture. From this evolved the term "lombar," and, in America, "lumber," used to refer to useless items made of wood (the primary items that were pawned) (W. Funk, p. 130). "Lumber rooms" were those filled with bulky pieces of furniture, wood, and other clutter; when American homesteaders built their homes, their properties were often littered with similar pieces of excess wood, called "lumber" (Hendrickson, p. 424). Note: the walk of the same name - lumber (as in "the woodsman lumbered into the saloon") - has a completely different origin that we will not go into here (Barnhart, p. 614).

Well, remembering some of the paintings of early homesteaders surrounded by lumber, it is not difficult to see how the excessive scraps of wood might well have seemed inconvenient, living up to its etymology. But for the lumberjacks, cutting those tall trees, the resulting lumber represented their livelihood. Using the term "jack" in reference to a man who cuts trees (lumberjack) applies the familiar form of the word "john," meaning a man who is engaged in a trade (C. E. Funk, p. 165). We can imagine some of our ancestors, newly arrived on this continent, turn from merchant or farmer to lumberjack out of pure necessity. It must have been difficult for these men, catapulted into this new role and pressured by the expectations of their womenfolk; and this writer would not doubt that more than one, frustrated by all he did not know, figuratively "flew off the handle" if questioned or interrupted by a nagging wife, "when will the house be finished, Horace?" It would be wise, however, that his actions not be literal. That term refers to the woodsman whose grip on his ax is not secure enough, resulting in the entire tool flying through the air (Mordock & Korach, p. 102) or to an ax blade that is not affixed properly to the handle, causing it to continue to fly (forwards or backwards) even when the lumberjack has stopped swinging the handle (Hendrickson, pp. 257-258). If Horace literally flew off the handle, the consequences could be quite grave (but the nagging wife might no longer be a problem)!

In clearing their land holdings to build their homesteads, these frontier lumberjacks had to move the trees they cut by stacking the logs into loads and then rolling them to the building location. Neighbor would help neighbor so everyone would have his own shelter in short order (C. E. Funk, Horsefeathers, p. 80). This process - logrolling - was necessary for the homesteading all across America but the term soon acquired new meaning: legislators adopted the phrase "logrolling" to refer to supporting each other's legislation, nowhere near as community-oriented as the homesteaders of early America (Mordock & Korach, p. 89). Surely those homesteaders who branched out into politics may have become more experienced with the latter type of logrolling than the former.

Creating new towns, as well as homesteads, was fraught with hurdles that no doubt stumped our forebears. That term comes from the same object that created a stumbling block for those pioneers trying to clear the land: the "stump" of a tree. Once trees were cut and the logs were rolled out of the way, the stumps had to be removed in order to build the home or plant the crops; a particularly difficult stump might lead the builder to give up, declaring that he had been "stumped" (Garrison, p. 210). Another way that the trees become both a boon and a bust to the lumberjacks occurs when they choose to move the raw material via river, getting it there by sending the logs down a flume and then floating them to the building site (particularly necessary when more and more land was cleared and stands of trees were great distances from where the homesteads were being established). If the logs, en route to their destination, "hit a snag" in the water, production would be halted. In its original definition, a snag was a tree trunk that grew and was firmly rooted under the water line so that no one could see it was there. Hitting a snag could cost suppliers a lumber contract as it jams up the entire operation until removed (Mordock & Korach, p. 102). We hope that our ancestors, whether career lumberjacks or one-time home builders, were able to clear the snags as quickly as possible.

Homes were not the only things built with logs in early America: felled trees were also used to create roads. Because of the shape of the logs, roads of that building material were called "corduroy roads"; these were built by laying the logs down across the roadbed, providing a rather bumpy ride, one would think. We don't see many such roads still in existence these days - and it's a good thing! Surely if we had to traverse such roads to explore the areas our ancestors settled, it would take a great deal of time to see all there is to see! But corduroy roads were considered quite a luxury for travel in wet areas where mud would make the passage impossible during certain times of the year and frequently gates were installed where tolls were collected. These were the nation's first "toll roads" and often retained the label "washboard" or "corduroy" road, long after the use of modern paving material was employed (Drake, p. 314). Also called "turnpikes" because the gates were often made of rotating pikes (sharp rods), these roads have certainly improved over the years, even if the names have not evolved much (Hendrickson, p. 526).

A self-respecting contractor would never consider building a home out of recently cut logs. In fact, wood does not actually become "lumber" until it has been properly prepared: first it must be cut and then it must be dried. Building something of "green" wood is begging disaster as the wood will eventually shrink, leaving the house in a less than agreeable state. Once the wood is cut and dried, it is ready for the building process. Similarly, we call things that are fundamental, or easy to accomplish or explain, "cut and dried" (Mordock & Korach, p. 102). When we examine old records to learn of the lives of our ancestors, much of our findings seem to fall into place and make our family history appear "cut and dried," even though we might have been confused initially.

Speaking of confusion, sometimes when we look at old documents we cannot make any sense of them (perhaps because of the writing style or because parts are missing). We might say we are "plumb frustrated" by the entire process. In this case, of course, "plumb" refers to "completely" or "thoroughly," but its origin is, again, the building trade. The "plumb" here refers to the carpenter's equipment: a plumb line. This is a line or string with a lead weight on the bottom, used to determine if the construction is a true vertical. The word plumb actually comes from the Latin word for "lead" and has nothing to do with completeness or thoroughness, but the carpenter seeks for complete or thorough accuracy in his building, hence the use of that word as an adjective, often paired with such conditions as tired, crazy, happy, etc. (Hendrickson, p. 533). Of course, that is the same carpenter who wants his work to be done "to a T," in reference to the "T square" used for measurement (Mordock & Korach, p. 106). Accuracy in the construction field has been, and continues to be, a prime concern for both the builder and the home's eventual occupants, as well as for the genealogist seeking truth in his/her research. (Note: see an earlier article on religious terms for a discussion on the alternative origin of "to a T.")

So when we look at our ancestors as lumberjacks and builders, we find that the words they used have infiltrated the common vernacular. As we research our family histories, we support our fellow genealogists in their pursuits, helping those who have hit snags. Solutions frequently seem cut and dried (especially when we are assisting others instead of doing our own family research) and networking allows us to assist our stumped friends. Occasionally, researchers might fly off the handle (particularly when the snag involves gaining access to a sealed record) and often the log-rolling of the bureaucrats who do not understand the importance of genealogical research and access to public records cause us to become plumb angry. We are investigators and serious researchers who want our pedigrees to be accurate to a T; many of us are the best historians ever to "come down the 'pike" and the last thing we want is for our family trees to be hewn down like useless "lombar."


Barnhart, Robert K., Ed. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. New York: Chambers, 1988, 2003.

Drake, P. What Did They Mean by That? A Dictionary of Historical and Genealogical Terms Old and New. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 2000.

Funk, Charles Earle. Horsefeathers & Other Curious Words. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1958, 1986.

Funk, Wilfred. Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories. New York: Bell Pub., 1978.

Garrison, Webb. What's in a Word? Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 2000.

Hendrickson, Robert. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, revised and expanded ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 1997, 2000.

Mordock, John, & Korach, Myron. Common Phrases and Where they Come from. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2001.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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