Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Idiom: in my neck of the woods (AmE)
The meaning of this expression is: in the region where I live.

I once tried to find out how a word that referred to a part of the body could later develop into an expression where it meant region. I have just had a look at etymonline but there's nothing concrete about the origins of neck, except older variants that do not explain much.

As we have experts in etymology on EL&U, some of whom know exactly what is what, even in ProtoIndoEuropean, I thought I might ask if someone has read anything useful or has an idea that might explain this semantic change.


BOUNTY EDIT
I wouldn't be at all surprised if there were a special winter hat for whoever wins the bounty. If the answer is "great", I won't hesitate to award the bounty early.

share|improve this question
9  
Body part metaphors are all over the place: head of the table, handling the problem, that arm of the bay. Necks -- isolated regions -- in woods come from bends in streams; and eastern N. America was largely forest when Europeans settled it. So most settlements were isolated at first, usually in the woods, often by water. –  John Lawler Mar 25 at 19:28
2  
New York has a Great Neck. Las Vegas probably has some other part. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Neck,_New_York –  Spehro Pefhany Mar 25 at 19:41
1  
I wasn't aware of this being an American expression, it's used very commonly in Britain too. Anyone any ideas why and when it should have come back over and become so common? –  Mynamite Mar 25 at 21:36
    
@Mari-Lou - I don't know how it is possible to contact you so I do it here. I have long thought about what might be the best answer. Now I think you should give the bounty to Ellen Colingsworth. Her suggestion Scottisch neuk which is nook (corner) is a hypothesis with a high probability, i.e. it might be possible that nook was changed to neck, perhaps because nook was not well-known. Nicole would be in second place for points, because she hinted at someone else who had doubts about the traditional explanation. –  rogermue Dec 16 at 16:01
    
@rogermue you can award the green tick to her, it is the answer which convinces you the most. I will award the bounty when the time's ready. I'm now using a friend's computer because mine is burnt out, so my time and access is very limited. :( –  Mari-Lou A Dec 17 at 17:50

10 Answers 10

up vote 1 down vote accepted

"Neck' might derive from 'neuk' meaning corner in British usage, especially in Scotland.

share|improve this answer
    
A new hypothesis and I must say in etymology I like new hypotheses rather than explanations that don't convince. Of course, I don't know the word neuk, but it might open up a new trace. –  rogermue Dec 4 at 22:21
2  
In his book Made in America, Bill Bryson had a similar idea: he thought this phrase originated from the Algonquian word "naiack," which means "point" or "corner." It may also come from the German phrase "meine ecke," which means "my corner." –  Nicole Dec 15 at 17:50
    
Wow! Algonquin naiack. Interesting theory. –  rogermue Dec 15 at 20:06
    
@Nicole comments can be deleted without warning, at any time. Posts tend to be more permanent, why don't you post a proper answer? I have placed the bounty so it's up to me who will be awarded it. :) –  Mari-Lou A Dec 15 at 22:38
    
@ Mari-Lou I reposted it as an answer now. –  Nicole Dec 16 at 15:42

The OED says:

neck n. ... 7. b. orig. U.S. A narrow stretch of wood, pasture, ice, etc. Now usually in neck of the woods: a settlement in wooded country, or a small or remotely situated community; (hence more generally) a district, neighbourhood, or region. in this neck of the woods: in this vicinity, around here (also used elliptically). Formerly also †neck of timber.

Neck was originally productive in this sense: you could have a neck of land or a neck of marsh or whatever, for example:

1705   John Lowthrop Philosophical Transactions and Collections 414   the Principal parts of Port-Royal, now lie in 4, 6 or 8 Fathom Water. That part which is now ſtanding, is part of the End of that Neck of Land which runs into the Sea

1760   Anno Regni Triceſismo Tertio Georgii II. Regis 28   And whereas there is a certain Iſland, or Neck of Marſh, Meadow and Cripple-land, ſurrounded by Delaware River, Hollanders and Hay Creeks

1863   Robert Ballantyne Fast in the Ice 31   the lane of water along which they were steering was, just ahead of them, stopped by a neck of ice that connected two floe-pieces.

And of course, necks of wood:

1780   A. Young Tour Ireland (Dublin ed.) I. 266   You see three other necks of wood,..generally giving a deep shade.

which came to mean neighbourhood:

1871   M. Schele de Vere Americanisms 178   He will..find his neighborhood designated as a neck of the woods, that being the name applied to any settlement made in the well-wooded parts of the South-west especially.

and the original sense of neck was lost, leaving it fossilized in neck of the woods.

share|improve this answer

Of course, the word neck can be transferred to things that have similar forms, so you can speak of the neck of a bottle. But "in my neck of the woods" simply means in that part/ region where I live.

And when I read such explanations as in Etymonline about a narrow strip of wood then I have the feeling I'm reading free and fanciful associations but not its etymology. Where in large wooded areas is there a narrow strip of wood? I think it would be more honest to say the origin of that curious saying is unknown.

That might lead perhaps to new ideas. I have the idea that there was something else behind "neck", and that word was changed to neck. It might be possible that the German word Ecke or Eck (corner) was the original word. "In my eck" or "in mine eck" might have been changed to "in my neck of the woods".

It is impossible to verify such transformations, but they are possible. Compare "Don't be fresh" transformed from German frech meaning insolent. Suddenly such curious transformations are in use and then theories are invented to explain the expression of neck.

If the origin of neck really had been the German word for corner then the saying really would make sense:

In my corner of the woods.

share|improve this answer
2  
I upvoted your answer because your hunch about neck being connected to the German Ecke / Eck is appealing and has a solid foundation. I also appreciated the phrase In my corner of the woods, which is self-explanatory, today. But who is to say that in the past "neck" didn't stand for a narrow strip of wood i.e. an area of land where trees are growing? (Not strips of wood, which would mean thinly cut wooden strips!) –  Mari-Lou A Oct 7 at 7:51
    
I would like to place a small bounty on your question. That way users would upvote or downvote your hypothesis, or hopefully, post more detailed answers. Would you be OK with that? Furthermore, can I ask you to delete your comments, which are now "obsolete" from under this post. –  Mari-Lou A Dec 15 at 7:24
    
@Mari-Lou A. - A late answer to your question But who is to say that in the past "neck" didn't stand for narrow strip of wood? - No one, that's the devilish thing about etymology. But it is useful, when explanations with older similar words are not convincing, to think of other possibilities, and above all of transformations. –  rogermue Dec 15 at 18:39
    
Neck" had been used in English since around 1555 to describe a narrow strip of land, usually surrounded by water, based on its resemblance to the neck of an animal. But the Americans were the first to apply "neck" to a narrow stand of woods or, more importantly, to a settlement located in a particular part of the woods. In a country then largely covered by forests, your "neck of the woods" was your home, the first American neighborhood –  Josh61 Dec 15 at 20:18

When the US was wilderness, much travel was along the major and minor rivers. These often looped into bends, and a tight bend that almost met itself would form a neck-like figure that was often called a Neck on maps and documents.

The three Peninsulas of Virginia where rivers hit the Chesapeake Bay are all called Necks, the Northern Neck being the most famed as George Washington made his home there.

So you can see the image of you taking a canoe out into the wilderness where the speaker has put his little cabin near the river.

share|improve this answer

In his book Made in America, Bill Bryson said he thought that this phrase originated from the Algonquian word "naiack," which means "point" or "corner." It may also come from the German phrase "meine ecke," which means "my corner."

share|improve this answer
    
I don't know who Bill Bryson is, and the tiny mini computer I have been lent is damn slow, which rules out my searching on Wikipedia. From your link it appears he is neither a lexicographer nor an etymologist, which doesn't necessarily mean he's wrong or untrustworthy but just how reliable is he? (and believe it or not this comment took me a good five minutes to write, I have stupid fat fingers...) Does the same author mention "mein ecke", or is it your supposition? It's not exactly clear from your post. –  Mari-Lou A Dec 19 at 5:46
1  
He is a journalist and an author who has written several books about the English language and its development. As for the "meine ecke" theory, that came from a Guardian article I found when I did a Google search for more information about Bryson's theory. Here is the link to that article: theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/… –  Nicole Dec 19 at 14:53
    
Thank you for replying :) –  Mari-Lou A Dec 19 at 16:54

Early discussions of the phrase 'neck of the woods' in reference works

Maximilian Schele De Vere, Americanisms; The English of the New World (1872) believes that the phrase “neck of the woods” was not only native to the United States but especially common in the nation’s Southwest (a designation that, at the time referred primarily to the region occupied by Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

If the settler find no home on an island or in a cove of a prairie, he prefers, especially if he be German, a Knob, as from its resemblance to a knob (Germ. Knopf), any rising is called in the West. ... Should he build his cabin in a forest, he will soon find his neighborhood designated as a neck of the woods, that being the name applied to any settlement made in the well-wooded parts of the Southwest especially. Should he dread the bush, he may choose one of those beautiful forest glades called oak openings and found in the Northwest.

An assessment of the phrase similar to De Vere’s appears in John Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms: A Glossary of Words and Phrases, Usually Regarded as Peculiar to the United States, second edition (1859):

NECK OF THE WOODS. In the wooded sections of the South-West this term is used in speaking of any settlement, place, or plantation.

[Example:] I am the only subscriber to the Spirit of the Times in this neck of woods, and consequently my paper is in great requisition.—Letter from Arkansas, N.Y. Spirit of the Times.

[Example:] It’s no use talkin’ about your Polar bar and your grizzly bar. They ain’t no whar, for the big black customer [the black bear] down in our neck o’ the woods beats ‘em all hollow.—Traits of American Humor, Vol. II

The phrase "neck of the woods" does not appear in the first edition (1848) of Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms, however.

John Farmer, Americanisms—Old and New (1889) offers this definition:

NECK OF THE WOODS. — A plantation or settlement situated in woodland districts. This term is mostly met with in the Southwest.

Farmer also observes that the word neck “Generally applied, in old colony days, to land lying between rivers.”

From “The Dialect of Southeastern Missouri, in Dialect Notes, volume 2, part 5 (1903) has this brief entry for “neck of woods”:

neck of woods, n. phr. Neighborhood. ‘He doesn’t live in this neck of woods.’

Nineteen years later “Metaphor and Simile in American Folk-Speech” in Dialect Notes, volume 5, part 5 (1922) has this entry:

neck of the woods, n. phr. Neighborhood. "Nobody lives in that neck of the woods." Indiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Nebraska.

That nineteenth-century speakers and writers of British English did not use “neck of the woods” in the sense of settlement or neighborhood is clear from Philological Society, A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, volume 6 (1908), whose only citation of that sense of the phrase is from De Vere’s 1872 book on Americanisms.

Gilbert Tucker, American English (1921), who handles the phrase very briefly in a chapter of his book called “Some Real Americanisms,” makes clear that by 1920 use of "neck of the woods" didn't require the presence of any significant number of trees:

NECK OF THE WOODS—Place, not implying proximity of forest, 1851.


Early newspaper appearances of the phrase

A search of the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America newspaper database for the years 1836 through 1845 turns up just two relevant matches for that ten-year period (the database goes back only to 1836). One is an advertisement that ran regularly in the Cadiz [Ohio] Sentinel between March 26 and October 8, 1845, under the eye-catching headline, “Awful Calamity!”:

E. C. Stewart, very thankful for past favors, would most respectfully inform his friends and the public generally, that he continues to carry on the Chair Making Business, at the south end of Marker Street, where he has, and intends keeping constantly on hand, a general assortment of FANCY AND WINDSOR CHAIRS, of the latest fashions, made and finished in a style not to be surpassed by any thing that can be scared up in this neck of woods ; and he feels confident, from his long experience in the business, and a desire to please, that he will render general satisfaction to all those who favor him with a call.

And from the Ohio Piketonian (1845) quoted in the [Indianapolis] Indiana State Sentinel on November 29 and December 4, 1845:

INDIANA SENTINEL.—Among all exchanges which come to our table; there is no more welcome visitor than Chapman’s State Sentinel. The paper is right, politically ; and there is a life and vivacity about its editorials which render it both amusing and instructive. Besides all this, its publishers are the ‘right sort of stock,’—first rate clever fellows. If any one in this ‘neck of woods’ desires to know the ‘doings” of the Hoosier Legislature, just let them send for the Indiana State Sentinel.—Ohio Piketonian.

Both of these instances are from Ohio, which has never been identified as a “South-Western” state. In the period from 1846 through 1850, the Library of Congress database suggests that the Ohio connection to the phrase remains strong. For instance, from the [Carrollton, Ohio] Caroll Free Press (October 16, 1846), this item:

MAMMOTH BEET.---Mr. Daniel Vanhorn, of Lee township, a few days since, presented us with a beet weighing 12½ pounds. If any other place, in “this neck o’ woods,” can beat Lee in the beat like, we should like to know it.

Lee, Ohio, is about 7 miles southeast of Carrollton, though both are in Carroll County. That a Carrollton newspaper would view Lee as being “in this neck o’ woods”—that is, in the same neck of the woods as Carrollton—suggests that a “neck of woods” in 1840s Ohio parlance comprehended a significantly larger geographical area than many people now think of it as describing.

Other instances of “neck of woods” appear in the [Upper Sandusky, Ohio] Democratic Pioneer on October 22, 1847” (about a bank closure in Yazoo City, Mississippi), on November 5, 1847 (quoting from the Ohio Patriot), and on August 11, 1848; and in the [Ravenna, Ohio] Portage Sentinel on March 17, 1847 (quoting the Steubenville [Ohio] Union), on November 4, 1850, and on December 30, 1850:

The Indiana State Sentinel continued to use the term “neck of woods” too—in a July 11, 1846 in a letter from a reader in Union County Indiana and in a May 20, 1847 report from the Whig convention to nominate a candidate for the nearest Congressional district.

The black bear story that Bartlett cites in 1859, originated in the “New Orleans Delta” (specifically, Yazoo, Mississippi) according to a version of the story that appears in the Wilmington [North Carolina] Journal (January 18, 1850), although the story twice uses the phrase “neck o’ woods,” instead of “neck o’ the woods” as Bartlett’s source does.

Another widely reprinted tall tale—this one about a “bar hunting” adventure in 1843 in Hot Springs, Arkansas—uses the phrase “neck of the woods.” This story appears, for example, in the [Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania] Jeffersonian Republican (July 2, 1846):

But, however, I slung ‘old Bellzy’ over my shoulders, and sat out in full chase after the only bar that we had heard of in that neck of the woods during the summer.

The same story appears in the Ottawa [Illinois] Free Trader (March 20, 1846), the [Abbeville, South Carolina] Banner (June 3, 1846) and in the Baton Rouge [Louisiana] Gazette (April 18, 1846).

Other instances of “neck of the woods” appear in the Jeffersonian Republican (June 1, 1848) and in the [New Orleans, Louisiana] Daily Crescent (March 5, 1850).

Other instances of “neck of woods” appear in the Sunbury [Pennsylvania] American (August 25, 1849) and in the Wilmington [North Carolina] Journal (January 23, 1846).


Conclusions

The reference works from the 1800s agree that “neck of the woods” originated in the Southwest part of the United States, which in the middle of the nineteenth century was generally understood to refer to the pro-slavery states west of the Mississippi that eventually seceded from the Union in the 1860s: Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. Nevertheless, only two of the twenty occurrences of the phrase “neck of the woods” [or “neck of woods”] that appear in U.S. newspapers in the Library of Congress database published in the years 1845 through 1850 are from the U.S. Southwest—in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Perhaps that anomaly is attributable to the absence of printing presses in much of the Southwest at this period—and stories printed outside the region that retell “bar hunt” stories from Arkansas and the Mississippi River Delta and a bank failure story from a city on the edge of the Mississippi River suggest that the phrase was indeed popular there.

But the fact remains that the band of Midwestern states ranging eastward from Illinois in the west through Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania accounts for fifteen of the twenty matches from this period. The only exceptions are the two instances from Louisiana, two from a single newspaper in Wilmington, North Carolina, and one from South Carolina. On the strength of this record, I think we have to credit the Midwestern states with early (though perhaps not first) adoption of the phrase.

With regard to the distribution of instances of “neck of woods” versus “neck of the woods,” Indiana and Ohio sources strongly favor the former, while the Louisiana and the Carolina sources use the latter.

As for the original sense of the idiom, I think that the most interesting comment in the nineteenth-century sources is Farmer’s observation that the “neck” was “in old colony days” defined as land lying between two rivers. By the 1840s, however, it had clearly come to mean simply area or neighborhood. The remaining question is, How large an area was implied by the term? My impression from Carroll County, Ohio, example cited above—in which a town 7 miles away from Carrollton appears to be viewed as falling within the same “neck of woods”—is that it could cover a surprisingly large area.

share|improve this answer

Etymology Online says this much about neck:

Transferred senses attested from c.1400. Phrase neck of the woods (American English) is attested from 1780 in the sense of "narrow stretch of woods;"

So apparently the original sense was referring to a narrow geographic location.

An example given is where the weatherman reports the weather "in your neck of the woods". The closest meaning for this is probably that he wants to narrow his attention to "your local region".

share|improve this answer

Mari-Lou A's link to word-detective is very interesting, but it is hard to find as you have to scroll far down. That's why I post it here again.

From word-detective:

Necking in the woods.

Dear Word Detective: As I flip from channel to channel, I hear a great number of weathermen use the term "in that neck of the woods." I was not aware woods had necks. What else do they have? Where does "neck of the woods" come from? -- F.W. Headley, via the internet.

Ah, the woods have many things, my friend. Ears, for instance. Actually, I may be thinking of walls having ears. But I'm sure the woods do too, and you never know what sneaky little woodchuck or disgruntled deer is out there taking notes while you're stumbling through the undergrowth absent-mindedly mumbling about your more debatable tax deductions. I had an uncle once who landed in the hoosegow on the word of a skunk who sang like a canary.

"Neck of the woods," meaning a certain region or neighborhood, is one of those phrases we hear so often that we never consider how fundamentally weird they are. In the case of "neck," we have one of a number of terms invented by the colonists in Early America to describe the geographical features of their new home. There was, apparently, a conscious attempt made to depart from the style of place names used in England for thousands of years in favor of new "American" names. So in place of "moor," "heath," "dell," "fen" and other such Old World terms, the colonists came up with "branch," "fork," "hollow," "gap," "flat" and other descriptive terms used both as simple nouns ("We're heading down to the hollow") and parts of proper place names ("Jones Hollow").

"Neck" had been used in English since around 1555 to describe a narrow strip of land, usually surrounded by water, based on its resemblance to the neck of an animal. But the Americans were the first to apply "neck" to a narrow stand of woods or, more importantly, to a settlement located in a particular part of the woods. In a country then largely covered by forests, your "neck of the woods" was your home, the first American neighborhood.

Source: http://www.word-detective.com/052699.html

My comment: For me the most interesting sentence is:

"Neck of the woods," meaning a certain region or neighborhood, is one of those phrases we hear so often that we never consider how fundamentally weird they are.

A pity that he talks away the discrepancy that struck him at first by saying at the end, yes, in large wooded areas there are formations comparable to a human neck. I doubt it.

share|improve this answer
    
One should try to keep as open a mind as possible. The link and the information it contains is thoughtful and is built on a solid base. Just because you want to believe that the geographical "neck" doesn't refer to the part of the body, doesn't mean word detective's answer is less interesting. "neck of woods" could in origin have referred to a section of woodland that became narrow and ended near a body of water. Perhaps from the top of a mountain that stretch of woods looked like a neck, why not? –  Mari-Lou A Dec 19 at 5:58

Here's another suggestion - perhaps it has come from French niche:

niche: 1610s, "shallow recess in a wall," from French niche "recess (for a dog), kennel" (14c.), perhaps from Italian nicchia "niche, nook," from nicchio "seashell," said by Klein and Barnhart to be probably from Latin mitulus "mussel," but the change of -m- to -n- is not explained. Watkins suggests that the word is from an Old French noun derived from nichier "to nestle, nest, build a nest," via Gallo-Roman *nidicare from Latin nidus "nest;" but that has difficulties, too. Figurative sense is first recorded 1725. Biological use dates from 1927.

Source: Etymonline (my emphasis in bold).

The French pronunciation is neesh, but these days English speakers often pronounce it nitch. Is there evidence that in previous centuries they pronounced similar French words with a hard 'ch' - nick?

It's not too big a jump to talk about 'my niche of the woods' to mean the area where one lives.

share|improve this answer
    
Interesting idea. –  rogermue Dec 18 at 1:40

First of all to my surprise, I discovered that the idiom "in my neck of the woods" is indeed an American one, something which I didn't expect as it's a very common expression in British English too.

Secondly, there is an interesting coincidence which may or may not prove to be relevant but it provides a connection between @Gareth Rees and Rogermue's answers.

In the southwest of Germany there's a river called Neckar whose origins lies in the Black Forest. Wikipedia says:

The name Neckar was derived from Nicarus and Neccarus from Celtic Nikros, meaning wild water or wild fellow. From about 1100 Black Forest timber was rafted downstream as far as Holland, for use in shipyards.

Finally, the expression "neck of land" cited by Gareth Rees led me to its older term isthmus*, which Oxford Online Dictionaries define as

A narrow strip of land with sea on either side, forming a link between two larger areas of land.

Etymonline says:

1550s, from Latin isthmus, from Greek isthmos "narrow passage, narrow neck of land," especially that of Corinth, of unknown origin, perhaps from eimi "to go" + suffix -thmo

1753 The London Magazine, Or, Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer, Volume 22

... thought formerly to have been joined to that main land by an isthmus or neck of land, in length of time washed away by the ea, in the same manner as Great Britain is supposed antiently to have been joined to France.

1823 Observations Upon the Floridas on page 66

efforts of its European possessors were lavished, to bring it forward in civiliazation and agricultural improvement: within this narrow neck of land, with the exception of the maritime part of...

page 133

The town of St. Augustine is situated on a neck of land, formed by the river Matanzas which is the harbour, on the east, and St. Sebastian's creek emptying thereinto, on the south and west:...

Page 146

The neck of land between the rivers St. Mary and St. John on the north and south...

So it seems that the term neck has been used to describe narrow stretches of territory usually confined by a river for a considerable number of centuries.

OED

share|improve this answer
    
and computer's about to die on me... –  Mari-Lou A Dec 16 at 15:40
    
I'm disappointed that nobody picked up on the German river's name Neckar, and its source the Black Forest. Perhaps just mere coincidence but it was worth a bit of research. My laptop has died on me, and the one lent to me is slow and incredibly tiny, so until my old comp is fixed (which doesn't look to be any time in the foreseeable future) I am out of the equation. –  Mari-Lou A Dec 21 at 8:57

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.