Etymology, Taxonomy & Nomenclature


Etymology: What’s in a  name?? Sometimes nothing, but sometimes a whole family history. In Scandinavia the concept of a family name was unknown  until the early 20th century, when householders were encouraged to register a
surname for entry on the census/electoral register. Before that the family name consisted of a string of names from the male line: Johansonofericsonofolafsonof…… or a combination of forename and place name, which changed if the family moved  to another village or region.


The origins of the word  for billhook and those for other
edge tools, allows us to trace their ancestry, or that of the peoples that make  up the country where they are found. The word ‘billhook’ although frequently  used today was not in common usage until the mid to late 19th  century. It is used in Francis Blakie’s ‘A treatise on Hedges and the Management of  Hedgerow Timber’ in 1828, but rarely in John Claudius Loudon’s ‘Encyclopaedia of Farming’ (1829) or Encyclopaedia  of Gardening’ (1830), and not in Henry Stephens’ ‘The Book of The Farm’ (1852). Both these latter authors use the  more common term hedge-bill or hedging bill, or just the word bill (also switching bill and cutting bill)  as did Samuel Johnson in his 1773 ‘Dictionary  of the English Language’. Early catalogues, such as Joseph Smith’s ‘Explanation or Key to the Manufactories of  Sheffield’ (1816) also used the term ‘bill’ (and reserve ‘hook’ for reaping  hooks, pruning hooks and furze hooks). Generally hedge-bill refers to a long handled  bill, used with two hands (c.f. a slasher) and a bill for one-handed use is
called a hand-bill.



The earliest known  reference in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), above, is 1611, and for a synonym,
hook-bill, it is 1613. Shakespeare ca  1580 to 1600 used bill (Richard 111 1,4;  Romeo and Juliet 1,1 & As you like it 1,2), and his less well known  contemporary Sir Philip Sidney in ‘The  Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia’ ca 1580 also used bill; hedging bill and forest bill.


In England it is still variously  known as a billhook (bill-hook or bill hook) but also as a  bill or handbill (hand-bill) or  just a hook in some english counties and hedging-bill in others.  The OED also gives hack, and  in parts of Dorset and Devon it is still known as a hacker and in parts of Kent as a brishing  (brushing?) hook. Double edged bills, i.e. those with a second blade  at the back, are referred to as broom-hooks by some makers. Those used  on a chopping block are often known as a block-hook.  As a boy the author knew it only as a chopper.  In other languages there are often  many names for the same tool, e.g in France  it is serpe, serpette, poudo, goyard, gouet and many others.


A small billhook,  typically used by thatchers or coppice workers for splitting hazel gads  and pointing the smaller piece of wood is known as a spar hook or spit hook. (Spars or broches  are used by thatchers to fasten the thatch to the roof, and before use they are  bent into a U shaped staple with an ingenious double twist which separates the  fibres and allows them to bend without breaking them.)

Billhooks are also referred to as pruning  hooks (also pruning knife,  especially if of the folding type) although these are generally smaller than  the average sized bills. Some makers also offered gentleman's and lady's  billhooks, which were usually highly polished and fitted with more ornately  turned handles, often made of imported hardwood, antler or horn. One such is  the Milton Hatchet, which is double  edged and unusual in having a single bevel on the back blade, similar to that  found on a chisel.


On the author’s original  web site it was erroneously stated that:


A  billhook is a short cutting tool (bill) with a curved nose (hook), and the  majority of billhooks, english or foreign, are easily recognisable as being of  this shape.


Even Professor White in his scholarly work on roman agricultural tools falls into a similar trap,  stating:


The  term billhook indicates that the blades are ‘hooked’ (i.e. curved) in profile
and that in addition they have the characteristic projection at the top of the
curved blade, known as the ‘beak’ (Lat: rostrum,  a bird’s beak). (2)


While many billhooks  are of this shape, others in the UK have straight blades (e.g. the Rodding or  Block hook patterns) or even convex blades (e.g. Rutland or Hertfordshire  patterns).


Looking at the  etymology of this using the world for billhook in other languages gives a  different interpretation:


German: hackbeil (also hackmesser,  haumesser, hippe, häpe, heep etc)


Dutch: hakbijl (also hakmes, snoeimes, etc)


Hook would thus appear  to derive from hack (German) or hak (Dutch) and bill from beil (German) or bijl (Dutch) thus also giving some clues as to the origins of the  invaders of Anglo Saxon Britain as well as the origin as of the name, hook-bill  or billhook.


Bill thus does not  refer to the shape of the tool resembling the beak or bill of a bird, and hook  does not relate to the shape of the blade with a hooked end. Bill, beil or bijl  thus go back to the OED definition giving its origin as axe or short sword.

Hook, hack or hak also refer to the action of the tool for cutting or chopping.  In German the word for the verb ‘to chop’ is hacken (noun hacke or hacker) and  in Dutch it is hakken (noun hakker). The word for hook is haken (German) or  haak (Dutch).


Thus billhook (or  hook-bill c.f. hackbeil also spelled as
or hakbijl) describes the function of the tool as a chopping tool  (sword, axe or short knife), rather than its ‘hooked’ shape (further confirmed  by the alternative names of hackmesser (German) and hakmes (Dutch) where  messer/mes means knife, hence chopping knife. In both languages (and also in  Italian, Hungarian and Polish) the word for a billhook can also be synonymous  with that for a meat cleaver.


Having traced the  ancestry of the word, however it is obvious that in english the hook part of  the word has now changed its meaning to describe the tool itself, not its
function. Hook is frequently on its own to indicate a billhook and also other  tools of a similar shape such as the spar hook, the reap hook, the fagging  hook, the bean hook etc. Also calling the beak of the tool by its alternative  name of bill, has also meant that the way in which the word is now used differs  greatly from its origins – language evolves, and users thus refer to the bill (of  the hook), meaning the  pointed beak.


As the billhook was in  use in England long before the Saxon invasions we may need to look even further  back to find what it was called before the Romans invaded, and it became known  as the falx in Latin (note falx also means sickle and scythe, so it was usual  to give it an adjective to describe its use further, e.g. falx arboraria, falx  sylvatica or falx putatorem, for  trees, or falx vinitoria, for pruning  grape vines). Possibly in pre-Roman times it was called the biwlg (pronounced bilygau) as in Welsh or the fidba (feeva) in Gaelic??? (Note also the Welsh  for axe is bwyell (pronounced bwyeill or bwyellau and in Gaelic it is biail (beeal) –  similar in sound to bill, beil and  bijl???).


In other languages,  e.g. French, Spanish and Italian it is also possible to trace the evolution of  the word for billhook, but in these languages the variety of dialect names  vastly exceeds those commonly found in the UK. Some interesting historical  links can be seen that do not match modern, often 20th century,  national boundaries. In both Sardinia (an Italian island) and the Basque region of  France/Spain the word puda is  commonly used – in France it  becomes poudo, in Spain podón,  and in Portugal  podäo, podal or podoa. In  Italy it is generally referred to as a roncola  or pennato, but in the Pavia region  (Lombardy) it is known as a pùdarö (3).  All are probably derivations of the Latin amputare (to prune) hence putatio  (pruning) and putator (a pruner, i.e. one who prunes), from which the modern Italian  potare (to  prune) and Spanish podar derive. Probably the result of oral  transmission of language in dialect forms, possibly a relic from the time when  only the clergy could read and write (the principal religion was Catholicism  and Latin was the language of the church and of scholars), it is easy to  understand a change in pronunciation from puta to pota to poda to podo.



Taxonomy: A billhook is  a tool, but not all tools are not billhooks: so it is also necessary to be able  to place any artefact in its correct taxonomic place. The following grouping may be a start:


Iron and Steel      


               Hand tool

                        Edge Tool

                                 Blade in line with handle

                                          Used in agriculture; forestry etc

                                                   Used for cutting or chopping


The problem is that  there is not just one simple taxonomic definition to use: we could also use:


Object with a practical  function

        Object used to work another material

                Object made from more than one material

                        Object with a blade for cutting or  chopping

                                Object made of iron or steel

                                           Object with a handle



One has only to look at  the various museum collections that hold billhooks or pruning hooks to see the  various ways in which a tool of this type can be classified (or  mis-classified), or where do you place the billhooks used in dutch carpenters’ shops or french cooperages that are not used for agriculture, forestry or  viniculture, or the many types of billhook that have an integral handle made  from iron or steel, or the polish tasak  and the italian mannaia which are  both  used equally as a butchers meat cleaver as they are for chopping wood???


How then does one  define a billhook, or translate the word accurately into or from a foreign  language?? For the purpose of this website the broadest possible definition will    be used: from the very small to the very large; from those with the cutting  blade in line with the handle, to those where it is at an angle; those with  integral handles made as part of the tool, to those with a handle made from  another material, fitted by tang, socket, rivets, glue or even moulded on in
plastic or rubber; those with a single  blade; those with two (or even more blades, or parts thereof); those with other
tools attached, or that form part of another tool – in short anything that  remotely resembles what in England we generally take to be a billhook; those  that other cultures and languages name as being a billhook (and anything else that the author wants to include in the  non-definitive site on the subject that he thinks should be included…).


As part of the reason  for this book is to avoid mis-definition, and the incorrect naming of other  non-billhook tools as billhooks, other pages will mention other tools that  could be (and frequently are) incorrectly identified. Thus a billhook is not  just a tool for cutting green wood, but where, as in other cultures, it has  other uses (e.g. in the Balkans they are used for harvesting maize; in the West  Indies large billhook type tools are used for cutting a form of grass, sugar cane, and in France a sugar beet knife is called a serpe à betterave, i.e. a billhook for beetroot) then it will be  included and discussed.


Nomenclature: The roman  author Lucius Iunius Moderatus
(AD 4 - ca. AD  70) who after a career in the army (he was tribune in  Syria  in AD 35) took up farming, wrote a twelve volumes teatise on farming, De Re  Rustica. This has been completely preserved and together with a smaller book on trees (De Arboribus) forms the most important sources on Roman agriculture . He is the first author  to describe the vine dressing knife or pruning hook in detail, ref Book 4 Chapter  25:


XXV. Est autem sic disposita vinitoriae falcis figura, ut capulo pars proxima, quae rectam gerit  aciem, culter ob similitudinem nominetur; quae flectitur, sinus; quae ab flexu  procurrit, scalprum; quae deinde adunca est, rostrum appellatur; cui superposita  semiformis lunae species securis dicitur. Eiusque velut apex pronus imminens  mucro vocatur. Harum partium quaeque suis muneribus fungitur, si modo vinitor  gnarus est iis utendi. Nam cum in
adversum pressa manu desecare quid debet, cultro utitur; cum retrahere, sinu;  cum allevare, scalpro; cum incavare, rostro; cum ictu caedere, securi; cum in  angusto aliquid expurgare, mucrone.
Maior autem  pars operis in vinea ductim potius quam caesim facienda est. Nam ea plaga quae  sic efficitur, uno vestigio allevatur. Prius enim putator applicat ferrum,  atque ita quae destinavit praecidit. Qui  caesim vitem petit, si frustratus est, quod saepe evenit, pluribus ictibus  stirpem vilnerat. Tutior igitur et utilior putatio est quae, ut rettuli, ductu
falcis, non ictu conficitur.


1.   Now the shape of the vine-dresser's knife is so designed that the part next to the haft,  which has a straight edge, is called the culter or "knife" because of  the similarity. The part that is curved is called the sinus or  "bend"; that which runs on from the curve is the scalprum or "paring-edge"; the hook which comes next is called the rostrum or  "beak," and the figure of the half-moon above it is called the  securis or "hatchet"; and the spike-like part which projects straight
forward from it is called the mucro or "point." Each of these parts  performs its own peculiar tasks, if only the vine-dresser is skilful in using


2.   For when he is to cut something with a  thrust of the hand away from him, he uses the culter; when he is to draw it  toward him, he uses the sinus; when he wishes to smoothe (sic) something, he  uses the scalprum, or, to hollow it out, the rostrum; when he is to cut  something with a blow, he uses the securis; and when he wants to clear away  something in a narrow space, he makes use of the mucro. But the greater part of  the work in a vineyard must be done by drawing the knife toward you rather than  by hacking; for the wound which is made in this way is smoothed with one
impression, since the pruner first puts his knife in place and so cuts off what  he has intend to cut.


3.   One who attacks the vine by chopping,  if he misses his aim, as often happens, wounds the stock with many blows. Therefore that  pruning is safer and more advantageous which, as I have said, is  accomplished by the drawing of the knife and not by striking. (4)


The most commonly reproduced image of the vinitoriae falcis or falx vinitoria is shown below:





1. F.Horace Teall – Compound Words and Phrases, Funk and Wagnalls Co, 1892


2. K D White - Agricultural Implements of the Roman World - CUP, 1967