Having recently written about the word “tree”, it seemed fitting that I should continue the theme and go to the word used for what plants grow from; the seed.
We have been using this word for a long time, hardly surprising considering the long centuries of agriculture and the importance of planting seeds to ensure food supplies.
If we go back to 1382 and Middle English, we can find it in a form close to its modern one, and with the same meaning, in the Wycliffite Bible, in Genesis 47.23:
Takeþ seedez and soweþ feeldez.
(Take seeds and sow fields)
This of course brings us to Old English, and the form sǽde. This meant “seed, offspring”. Vestiges of the latter meaning can still be seen today in some expressions – men are said to have “sown their seeds” with regards to their children. Here is an example of the word in Old English, taken from Thorpe’s publication of Cædmon’s Poems, dating back to the 7th century:
Ðæt treów sceolde sǽde eft onfón
(the tree should again bear seed)
The word is by no means unique to English, which means that it can be traced back to Proto-Germanic *sediz, with the same meaning. It can be found in modern German as Saat; “sowing”, Saatgut; “grains” and besäen; “to sow”, in Dutch as zaad, Danish and Norwegian sæd, Swedish säd, all meaning “seed”.
Taking one step further back in time, we come to Proto-Indo-European *se-ti-, signifying “sowing”, from the root *se-; “to sow”.
Suggestions that the word is linked to “set” or “sit” are unfounded.