New plantings in the wordscape

The many meanings of 'scape.'

Maybe it's just my family, but I grew up thinking Frederick Law Olmsted was one of the Founding Fathers. Landscape design was as standard a topic of our dinner-table conversation as politics is in other families.

As a teenager I took it for granted that family car trips always involved running commentary and critiques by my mother and my brother of whatever landscaping we happened to drive by. It never struck me as odd until one day when I had a friend along and she pulled me aside to ask, "Do they do this all the time?"

And so I tend to have my antennae out for landscape – as a wordsmith, if not as a gardener. And I've been noticing how "scape" clauses seem to be proliferating, both in number and in meaning, in the language.

Landscape was originally a term of art in two senses: a technical term and one used by painters. It meant a painting showing inland scenery, rather than a view of the sea, or a portrait. The word was borrowed from the Dutch; given how many times Dutch artists painted the sea, they perhaps felt scenes of terra firma needed their own designation.

The Oxford English Dictionary's first recorded use of this sense of landscape goes back to 1598. Two centuries later, seascape made its appearance. Half a century after that, we got cityscape. In 1856, William Thackeray wrote of "a fairyland of frozen land, river, and city-scape." Most of Oxford's cityscape citations are mid-20th century, though.

A contemporary review of a 1960 novel described it as "a cityscape, a rich Dickensian evocation of a decaying, badly blitzed suburb."

"Scape," as a suffix, comes from the Anglo-Saxon side of English. It's related to the "ship" of "friendship," "hardship," or "scholarship." This ship is not necessarily nautical but is a suffix related to shape – it comes from a verb meaning to form or create.

Of all these "scapes," landscape is the only one that has a life as a verb, going back to 1927. And in the field of landscaping – the gerund derived from the verb – the term hardscape is in use to refer to paving stones, brick walls, and other solid features of a landscaped space, as distinct from softscape – the actual plants that make it a garden.

Organizational guru David Allen of "Getting Things Done" fame has popularized the use of hardscape to refer to the firm commitments on one's calendar (the weekly staff meeting, etc.), as distinct from the things that can be moved around. He and his devotees also speak of their "projects landscapes." (My own projects landscape often looks more like an overgrown wilderness than a well-tended garden, alas.)

"Hard" and "soft" are only the beginning. There are several other "scapes," each with multiple meanings: "Mindscape" is the name of a band, a British software publisher, a Web developer in Grand Rapids, Mich., and a sci-fi novel.

There's a similar embarrassment of riches for ideascape. At a nittier-grittier level, there's streetscape, one of my favorites; roofscape; cloudscape, a term used in art as well as photography; moonscape; winterscape; and even junglescape.

Some may wonder whether escape fits into this family of words (e-scape? the landscape of the online universe?). But no. The hidden word in escape is "cape." Escape is rooted in the idea of getting away and leaving one's pursuer with only one's cape – rather like the biblical Joseph in Egypt, leaving his garment behind as he flees the unwanted attentions of Mrs. Potiphar.

This weekly column appears with links at .

Correction: Last week's column referred incorrectly to elements of the plot in Shakespeare's "Hamlet." It was Claudius acting alone who killed Hamlet's father.

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