Our story today begins with Old English geard, which meant “fence, dwelling, house, region”. These meanings might reflect different ‘levels’ of things, but what they have in common in a sense of “enclosure”.
This sense of the ‘marked-off’ is perhaps made more clear by three near-relatives of geard: Old Saxon gard “enclosure, field, dwelling”, Old Norse garth “a small piece of enclosed ground”, and Old High German gart “circle, ring”. In fact, all of these words most likely descend from the same Germanic root, a root that also gives rise to the verb to gird, as in to “encircle with a belt” (or girdle), and to the noun girth (that what needs to be girded).
This Germanic “gard” root was borrowed by Russian (and other Slavic languages), and we see it in the names of towns, such as Petrograd and Novgorod.
During the Old English period, this sense of enclosure is transferred from the dwelling to the small-ish “uncultivated area attached to a house or other building or enclosed by it”. So, the concept of “yard” starts with a notion of an uncultivated spot next to your house, and then it grows into something a little less uncultivated.
Old English geard turns up in some surprising places.
Like Middle Earth.
J.R.R. Tolkien adapted the name Middle Earth from the Old English Middangeard (which is also found as Middenerd), all of which refer to the world in which we humans live, a world that sits “as a middle region between heaven and hell”.
The name Midgard, one of the nine worlds in Norse mythology, developed independently in Scandinavian (another member of the Germanic family). Midgard, like Middangeard, is also the realm inhabited by humans. What this suggests is an ancient desire to understand the place of humans in the world, a place that appears to be both above and below.
Earth is an old word. Different forms of the same ‘word’ are all over Indo-European languages (take for examples Dutch ertha, Greek ἔρα-, and Swedish jord). The Old English form was eorðe, which I think sounds suspiciously like the Arabic ardð “earth” (which is an old word in Arabic too). This is a tantalizing similarity, perhaps evidentiary of the hypothetical connection between Indo-European languages and Semitic ones. Which would mean that earth is really, really old.
The OED definition of earth reads, “the ground considered simply as a surface on which human beings, animals, and things associated with them rest or move”.
Back to the yard.
Geard shows up in orchard (it was orgeard) and vineyard (originally wingeard).
The Old English word for “wine” was win, which is related to Latin vinum, Greek οἶνος, Albanian vēne, (all of these from the Armenian gini) and perhaps even the Arabic & Ethiopic word wain, the Hebrew yayin, and the Assyrian înu. If indeed the former group of Indo-European words are related to the latter group of Semitic languages, then the word for “wine” is as old as earth.
Really, a vineyard is a very specific kind of orchard, and the two terms do share a root, so to speak.
Orchard has been around a long time, too. Geard is there in the second half, suggesting a greater meaning of some sort of (un)cultivation near a dwelling. And for the first half?
Two possibilities here. It could be that “or” is from classical Latin hortus “garden” (from whence we get horticulture). I guess that would make orchard originally mean something like a “garden close to the house”.
Also from hortus is Latin co-hors, used to indicate an “enclosure, yard, pen for cattle and poultry”, which is where the word cohort comes from.
(Latin Co-hors also gives rise to the word court, which, from about 1300 to 1700, was used as a synonym of yard. So the term courtyard is actually redundant.)
Or, it could be that the “or” in “orchard” is a variant of wort, a Germanic root meaning “plant, herb, vegetable for food or medicine” (as in St John’s Wort or liverwort). Which once again would give orchard the meaning “plants close to the house”.
Either way, orchard begins its denotational life as a name for a “garden (frequently enclosed) especially for herbs and fruit trees” and then expands over time to cover a larger “area of land given over to the cultivation of fruit trees”.
Wort-yard is a term found scattered throughout the history of English, at least until the late 14th c. The OED cites the story of Ahab in a 1382 translation of the Bible, which makes a distinction between a “vine-yard” and a “wort-yard”.
As time goes on, yard extends to mean the “grounds of a building”, first as an inn-yard and later as a churchyard, graveyard, prison-yard, Harvard yard, etc.
Yard also extends its domestic use as well, reaching out to encompass other areas near the house, such as the farmyard, the barnyard, and even specific parts of those areas (we have the poultry yard as well as its less formal cousin, the chicken yard).
And then the extension goes on to places where things are made or stored, like brickyards and shipyards and train-yards.
These days, for North American speakers, a yard is basically the stretch grass around your house, which may or may not include a garden and/or an attempt at landscaping.
Continuing on this path, let’s take a quick look at garden, which comes to us from French gardin, which is from the Latin gardimum, which came from . . . oh, wait, Germanic gard. That means English borrowed a word from another language that is a descendant of a word borrowed from Germanic that has the same root as a word English already used for something similar.
Garden seems to have come in to English with more of a “cultivated” or “planned” sense about it than yard. A 1577 quote from the OED explains, “I comprehend therefore vnder the word ‘garden’, all such grounds as are wrought with the spade by mans hand”.
I think we all know how “wrought with the spade” gardens can get.
Americans brought about the use of door-yard for a little garden “about the door of a house”, which in Scotland would be called a kale-yard (think “cabbage garden”), and which might otherwise be called a kitchen-garden or cottage-garden.
We also have kindergarten. Where we grow kids.
Oddly, neither of the terms grass-yard or green-yard refer to spaces dedicated to growing grass, but instead to “grassed enclosures” in which “hounds are exercised” (otherwise known as a dog walk or dog trot).
What should we take away from this yard-garden-orchard-court-wort journey? Well, all I know is that our tamed outdoor spaces have been important to us for a while. An English will, compiled in York in 1524, describes a family’s inheritance as, “A litile howse with a yerde”.
Isn’t that what we all want?