Bark, a tree tale

Words about words


Credit: Rickjpelleg
Bark on trunk of Melia azedarch (chinaberry) tree.

Asker, Norway

The word bark comes from the Old Norse bökr, which means the outer sheath of a tree trunk and its branches. There have been four other forms of the word: barc, barke, barcke, and barque. Yet the modern word bark is most prevalent, as in English and the Scandinavian languages.

Bark first appeared in Cursor Mundi (Latin for “Runner of the World”), a Middle English poem of almost 30,000 lines, written anonymously about 1300 A.D. somewhere in northern England. The poem is an overview of the then-known history of the world, as described in the Bible and other sources, including the Historia Scholastica, an early printed work that appeared in 1470. Line 1,321 of Cursor Mundi reads: “Braunches…o bark al bare.”

The next significant mentions of bark were metaphoric. In Book IV of The Canterbury Tales (1392), Chaucer observes that “Yboundyn in the blakke barke of care.” In 1562, English writer John Heywood (ca. 1497 – 1580) remarked in “Proverbs and Epigrams” that “It were a foly for mee, To put my hande betweene the barke and the tree … Betweene you.” That set an enduring precedent. In 1790, Scottish biographer James Boswell wrote “The Life of Samuel Johnson,” one of the leading figures in the history of English literature. In it he reflected that “In no writings whatever can be found more bark and steel for the mind.”

Yet throughout history, literal uses of the word bark have perhaps been the most noteworthy. For example, Jesuits’ Bark or Peruvian Bark, the bark of the cinchona tree, native to the tropical Andean forests of South America, is the source of quinine, a word from Quechuan, the language spoken by the Quechua indigenous people of South America. The Quechuas mixed ground cinchona bark with water sweetened to dull the bitter taste of the bark, thus producing tonic water. More famously, quinine was identified as a drug that was first isolated in 1820 and used to treat malaria until after World War II, when other drugs, such as chloroquine (discovered in 1934) replaced it.

This article originally appeared in the May 21, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

Avatar photo

M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.