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Idiom: in my neck of the woods, AmE

The meaning of this expression is: in the region where I live. Once I tried to find out how a word meaning a part of the body can develop an expression where it means region. I have just had a look at etymonline but they know nothing concrete about neck, except older variants that explain not much. As we have here specialists of etymology, some of whom know exactly what is what even in ProtoIndoEuropean, I thought I might ask if someone has read something useful or has an idea that might explain this semantic change.

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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
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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
    
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

4 Answers 4

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.

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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.

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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.

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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
    
@Mari-Lou A - Thanks for the up-vote. As to etymonline, I highly appreciate that website, especially as this astonishing dictionary is the work of one single person as said in the forword. But, of course, not all entries are and can be optimal, and I think I may say so if it is the case. –  rogermue Oct 7 at 7:59
    
I changed it, Mari-Lou, to please you. –  rogermue Oct 7 at 10:21
    
@Mari-Lou A - Your formating is okay, thanks. But I never know whether I have to do something or not when a post of mine is formated by someone. I must confess I haven't mastered yet all the possibilities of formating a text. –  rogermue Oct 7 at 11:16
    
You can do whatever you like. You can rollback if you prefer the original format, people do this all the time, you can modify the parts you dislike and keep the rest. I just think it's a shame that your answers tend to be a solid block of text. The tools on the editor are quite easy to master, if I can do it, so can anyone! –  Mari-Lou A Oct 7 at 11:19

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".

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