Hedging our bets and our fields

The Monitor's language columnist takes a look at the hedges that grow green and the hedges that hide greed.

Some people return from trips with lots of photos. Others go shopping and tote back treasures in arty little bags that may or may not fit under the airline seat.

I come back with newspaper clippings.

"The Thunderer" has gone tabloid, in format if not in concept, and there are other signs of newspapers under stress. But still, whenever I visit England, I inevitably end up clipping a few items I can't resist and tucking them into my little trip portfolio.

One of the themes of my reading this time was that England's hedges are in trouble.

These hedges, or hedgerows, are truly iconic. Some of them "pre-date Agincourt," as a local newspaper noted: English readers know this means they go back to 1415. Hedges are how you know you're flying into London, just as the square green linoleum blocks of the Midwest signal an approach into Chicago.

But apparently some 10,500 miles of hedge have disappeared from England over the past quarter-century, largely because of new construction.

What particularly caught my attention was this bit from a piece in The Sunday Times, by Charles Clover (an apt name for a writer on rural issues, certainly): "It's funny what happens to words. We now have to call what grows at the edge of fields a hedgerow to distinguish it from what financial people call a hedge, which is a euphemism for an each-way bet. I am inclined to go on calling field boundaries hedges on the grounds that they take precedence – they are still more important to our quality of life than what a few gamblers in Mayfair get up to."

Is there really a difference between a hedge and a hedgerow? "A hedge is a line of trees or shrubs maintained to form a physical boundary," according to the Kirklees District Council up in Yorkshire. A hedgerow is "this same line of trees or shrubs but in association with other flora and fauna and physical features such as banks and ditches – a complete ecosystem."

Hedge comes from an Old English word meaning a fence of any kind, "living or artificial," as the Online Etymology Dictionary has it. It has word-cousins all over Europe.

One of them is The Hague, with its odd definite article. Its Dutch name, Den Haag, is short for 's Gravenhage, literally "the count's hedge – the hedge-enclosed hunting grounds of the counts of Holland," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

But if hedge has benign associations with defense and protection (sheepfolds, etc.) it also has less attractive connections. Hedge as a prefix "notes something mean, vile, of the lowest class." This comes from a contemptuous sense of "plying one's trade under a hedge." A hedge lawyer, for instance, is not the one you want representing you in court. It's an old usage, going back to about 1530. Almost as old (1590) is hedge as a verb meaning to dodge or evade. Within a century (1670s) came hedge meaning to ensure oneself against loss in a bet. The verb has turned back into a noun. And the hedges have been particularly dubious of late.

The hedges of England are about protection – of farmers' fields, of wild creatures' habitat and migration patterns. The financial kinds of hedges have proved to be more about exposure.

But whatever we think of what's gone on in the City (London's financial district) and on Wall Street, at least there's a well-used term for it.

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