As we hear in the news stories of deforestation, or trees being chopped down for firewood, I thought it was time to look a bit more closely at this word. Like many others, it has a long history, with many cognates, or cousins in other languages. This should come as no surprise; after all, trees were on the planet long before the first people walked the Earth, and have always been a feature of our lives.
So, where does the word come from? Well, we can trace it through its Middle English forms, such as tre, treo, treu, treuwe, and others, spellings which probably represent the local accent. From there, we go further back, to Old English, where we may find the forms treówe and treo, meaning “tree, wood, log, cross”. Here is an example from Old English, from the Anglo-Saxon version of Genesis, a paraphrasing of the Biblical text in poetic form, known as Genesis A, dated to around 840.
Ð á behídde Adam hyne on middan ðam treówe neorxena wanges
(Adam hid himself among the trees of the garden)
The word has not really changed a lot since then. The Old English word came from Proto-Germanic *trewan. Not a great leap, you might think. From there we go to Proto-Indo-European, to the stem *dr-ew-, meaning “wood, tree”. This stem gave rise to a large number of words in many languages. In Greek we find δρυς (dris), meaning “oak”, δέντρο (dendro), which is “tree”, δόρυ (dori); “spear, javelin” and δρυμός, which means “woodland”. A Russian cognate is дерево (dyerevo), meaning “tree, wood”. In Serbian we find drvo; “tree”, in Croatian drvo means “tree” and “wood”, while in Slovenian, drevo is “tree”. The equivalent in Polish is drzewo, with drzewny meaning “wood”, drewno meaning “stick”.
Leaving the Slavic language family, we head to Celtic languages, where we find dair, darach in Irish Gaelic, meaning “oak”, doire; “woods”. In Scots Gaelic, darach means “oak”, in Welsh derwen is “oak”, in Manx the equivalent is darragh, in Breton it is derv.
And now we come back to English, to look at another cognate: true. You might raise your eyebrows at this, but think of how unlikely a tree is to get up and walk away by itself. You can rely on it, and rely on its strength. “Steadfast as an oak”, some might say. And from there developed the word true.