CS Sealey

New Zealand-based sub-editor, writer and author

Neck of the woods

There are many phrases which, when looked at on the surface, need a little bit of explaining. To ‘kick the bucket’, for example, or to ‘carry your heart on your sleeve’ and to refer to something as ‘a storm in a teacup’. I am personally fascinated by the origins of such phrases, so I thought I’d look at one that popped up in a podcast I was listening to last week.

Neck of the woods

‘I haven’t seen you in this neck of the woods before.’

This was his neck of the woods, he knew every nook and cranny.

The phrase refers to your area of a country or particular area. So if you are not from ‘this neck of the woods’, then you are not from the immediate area or its surrounds, but from further away.

Now, there are a couple of different claims for the origins of this phrase, but it’s actually a little bit of a mystery.

One is that it comes from a Canada-based Algonquian Native American word ‘naiack’, meaning a certain ‘point’ or ‘corner’ in the land.

Alternate sources have suggested that ‘neck’ had been used in English since the 16th century to describe a narrow strip of land, resembling a neck, usually bordered on both sides by water. Think of, say, an island that is only just joined to the mainland by an avenue of land that is slowly being eroded away by the sea over many years. This then could be applied to other natural formations, such as a narrowing of a forest.

The first suggestion, however, seems more suitable for the origins of this phrase, due to the fact that the phrase itself doesn’t literally mean a neck-like area or landmark. If you are from a certain ‘neck of the woods’, the phrase suggests, you don’t necessarily come from an area of the forest that narrows like a neck—it simply refers to a certain spot where you live. It’s quite a nice phrase, really…

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