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In wikipedia's Casuarinaceae article (and somewhat similarly in its Casuarina article), one finds:

The most widely used common name for Casuarinaceae species is sheoak or she-oak (a comparison of the timber quality with English Oak). Other common names include ironwood, bull-oak or buloke, and beefwood ... [Cox & Freeland say] the name 'she-oak' is derived from Native America sheac - beefwood.

Unfortunately etymonline shows nothing on the etymology of sheac, sheoak, she-oak, ironwood, bull-oak, buloke, or beefwood.

Questions: What are the actual origin and history of the name she oak or sheoak? How is "a comparison of the timber quality with English Oak" relevant to the name? Was there actually a "Native American" influence in forming the name of an Australian tree? And for extra points, explain why the Ngarrindjeri have a separate word, kula, for male she oak trees.

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This is either going to be "too localized" or "too interesting to close as too localized". –  JeffSahol Feb 17 '12 at 18:00
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up vote 3 down vote accepted

Q: What are the actual origin and history of the name she oak or sheoak?

This was likely named by the British Royal Navy who sailed around and wrote early narratives of Australia. Ships of sail are in need of wood, so they used familiar names to help describe the trees they found. She-oak was named after oak due to their similar timber texture.

The name appears to have originated from Sydney. The narrative of a voyage of discovery by Lieutenant James Grant, 1803 (and similarly by Grant, 1804):

The trees we saw were in general what is termed she-oak about Sydney.

Lieutenant J.H. Tuckey's An Account of a Voyage to establish a colony at Port Phlip, 1805:

The timber, within five miles of the beach, is chiefly the she-oak, only fit for cabinet-work ; the other kinds of timber-trees are very thinly scattered.

Observations of the various Kinds of Timber found in New South Wales. From Tuckey's Voyage, 1805:

New South Wales produces a great variety of timber trees, to some of which the colonists have given names descriptive of their qualities; and others they call by the names of those trees which they most resemble either in leaf, in fruit, or in the texture of the wood. Among the former are the blue, red, and black butted gums; stringy and iron barks; turpentine and light wood: and among the latter are the she-oak, mahogany, cedar, box, honeysuckle, tea-tree, pear-tree, apple-tree, and fig-tree. These trees shed their bark annually at the fall of tic year, and are always in foliage, the new leaves forcing off the old ones.

Q: How is "a comparison of the timber quality with English Oak" relevant to the name?

Many Casurina trees have been given oak names, not due to their appearance, but their timber.

Naturalist George Bennett's Wanderings in New South Wales, Batavia, Pedir Coast, Singapore ..., Volume 1, 1834:

The "swamp oak" [Casurina paludosa] bears much resemblance to the larch-I know not why this and other species of the casuarina trees have received the colonial appellation of "oaks," as forest-oak, swamp-oak, she oak, &c, as they have not the slightest resemblance to that tree in external character, unless the name may have been given from some similarity in the wood.

Martin Montgomery's History of the British colonies, 1835:

Casuarina Equisetifolia, horsetail casuarina, or he and she oak. — Monoecia monandria, nat. ord. Casuarinea. ... with leaves, or rather branchlets, hanging down in bundles, from 12 to 18 in length, like a long load of hair or horse's-tail... The wood is brittle, but makes very handsome furniture.

...

Among the ornamental woods come light wood, she-oak or beef tree, honeysuckle, myrtle, and the cherry-tree.

...

beef wood — she oak tree (Casuarina stricta); swamp oak tree (Casuarina paludosa); forest oak tree (Casuarina torulosa);

Q: Was there actually a "Native American" influence in forming the name of an Australian tree?

The OED claims the American sheac connection is baseless, but William Mann repeated the claim in 1839:

Causarina torulosa—She-oak. C. stricta—He-oak. C. tenuissima—Marsh Oak.—The name of the first of these is said to be a corruption of Sheac, the name of an American tree producing the beef-wood, like our She-oak. The second species has obtained the name of He-oak, in contradistinction of She-oak.

Q: And for extra points, explain why the Ngarrindjeri have a separate word, kula, for male she oak trees.

This is really for Ngarrindjeri Language and Usage, but Diane Bell's Ngarrindjeri wurruwarrin: a world that is, was, and will be says:

I've read about this tree in Tindale and much of it concerns sacred matters which are not discussed openly. What can be said is that tungi, the female she-oak, marked with colour and considered sacred, are distinguished from kula, the male she-oak tree

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Another origin-notion (besides those based on "Native American" or sheac influence) is given in a book by R. T. Baker re Australian hardwoods; Rowan Reid writes: "Baker begins his section of Casuarinas with the note that: “Shee Oaks” (Not Sheoaks or She-oak) were so named “on account of the peculiar sound produced by wind when passing through the branches”. The term ‘oak’ comes from the wood. ..." –  jwpat7 Feb 17 '12 at 23:00
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The Oxford English Dictionary entry for she-oak, n. says:

Forms: α. 17– she-oak, 18 sheoak; β. 18 shea-oak; γ. quasi-native name 18 sheac(k, shia(c)k, sheak.

Etymology: See she pron. Compounds 2e; compare he-oak , he pron. 8b.

There is no foundation for the allegation that the word is a corruption of an Australian Aboriginal or Tasmanian name. Another assertion, that it is a corruption of the name of an American tree, is also baseless.

Austral.

⁠1. a. A tree of the genus Casuarina.

b. attrib.

⁠⁠⁠⁠2. Slang name for beer.

Compounds

C1. General attrib.

she-oak beer n.

C2.

she-oak net n. a safety net for sailors boarding ship (see quot. 1898).

I’ve omitted the per-sense examples for the sake of wit’s soul. The proper citation for this entry is:

she-oak, n.

Second edition, 1989; online version December 2011. < http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/177960 >; accessed 17 February 2012. Earlier version first published in New English Dictionary, 1914.

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As tchrist has pointed out, the OED definition of she-oak is quite clear. In particular, it references entry 10.e for she, which says

10.e. with names of plants. Cf. he, 8.b. See also she-oak.

Examples include

  • 1575 Gascoigne Kenelworth Wks. 1910 II. 127 Mary there are two kinds of Holly, that is to say, he Holly, and she Holly.
  • 1585 Higins Junius' Nomenclator 114/1 Abrotonum mas. The hee Southernwood. A. femina. The shee Southernwood.
  • 1626 [see he, 8.b]. (you can look this one up yourself, when you see he, 8.b.)
  • 1705 Beverley Hist. Virginia (1722) 127 The other..looks shrivell'd, with a Dent on the Back of the Grain, as if it had never come to Perfection; and this they call She-Corn.
  • 1756 P. Browne Jamaica 362 The she-plants throw out their flowers separate.
  • 1884 Sargent Rep. Forests N. Amer. 210 Abies Fraseri, Lindley... Balsam. She balsam*.
  • 1898 E. E. Morris Austral Engl. s.v. Beech, She Beech, Cryptocarya obovata.
  • 1898 E. E. Morris Austral Engl. s.v. She-Oak, s.v. Beech, The prefix she is used in Australia to indicate an inferiority of timber in respect of texture, colour, or other character; e.g. She-beech, She-pine.
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Yes, I was always told by my old Irish aunts that She Oak's name came from the wailing sound the tree made when the wind blew through it. The wailing of the Banshee's.

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