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
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 www.heytesbury.freeserve.co.uk 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
hackebeil 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
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
Columella (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