Meanings: “Park”

July 19, 2012

I’m serving on a committee planning a riverside park in Topsham, Maine, where I live.  Sitting in a meeting today, I fell to wondering about the word “park.”  Where does it come from? And why do we use the same word for (a)  a place of recreation and (b) the leaving of a car in a particular spot?  It turns out that “park” originally referred to an enclosed place in which one could hunt animals.  Here’s on the matter:

park (n.) Look up park at
mid-13c., “enclosed preserve for beasts of the chase,” from O.Fr. parc, probably ultimately from W.Gmc. *parruk “enclosed tract of land” (cf. O.E. pearruc, root of paddock (2), O.H.G. pfarrih “fencing about, enclosure,” Ger. pferch “fold for sheep,” Du. park).

Internal evidence suggests the West Germanic word is pre-4c. and originally meant the fencing, not the place enclosed. Found also in Medieval Latin as parricus “enclosure, park” (8c.), which is likely the direct source of the Old French word, as well as It. parco, Sp. parque, etc. Some claim the Medieval Latin word as the source of the West Germanic, but the reverse seems more likely. OED discounts notion of a Celtic origin. Welsh parc, Gael. pairc are from English.

Meaning “enclosed lot in or near a town, for public recreation” is first attested 1660s, originally in reference to London; the sense evolution is via royal parks in the original, hunting sense being overrun by the growth of London and being opened to the public. Applied to sporting fields in American English from 1867. New York’s Park Avenue as an adjective meaning “luxurious and fashionable” (1956) was preceded in the same sense by London’s Park Lane (1880). As a surname, Parker “keeper of a park” is attested in English from mid-12c.

park (v.) Look up park at
1812, “to arrange military vehicles in a park,” from park (n.) in a limited sense of “enclosure for military vehicles” (attested from 1680s). General non-military meaning “to put (a vehicle) in a certain place” is first recorded 1844. Related: Parked; parking. Parking lot is from 1924; parking ticket attested by 1925; park-and-ride is from 1966. The transmission gear (n.) is attested from 1963.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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