A rather hard- and bucolic-sounding word for something you may find caught on a bird-dog’s tail. The bur can make one think of a snagging plant, a Scottish accent or a chill lake; burd adds an avian echo; dock is the wood platform on a lake but it’s also chopping, cutting short – what one may do to a paycheck or a tail. Those who know it’s some sort of plant will get a sense of hickory or perhaps something medicinal like myrrh; it may sound like something the village wiccan keeps in her sack. It has three points sticking up, making it like a bed of needles; the different facings of the b, d and k can make it seem almost wily, watchful, like a meerkat triumvirate (or, more locally, prairie dogs looking up from the herb). The plant, in fact, has many of the characteristics the word may seem to suggest. It has a prickly, burry head, looking almost like a spiky brush-cut human head – and its root is used to help maintain and promote healthy hair growth. It is also used as a blood purifier. And it may show up in your sushi – or, in England, in your soft drink. The prickly head inspired the invention of Velcro. So where does the word come from? The mists of Anglo-Saxon and the Germanic languages. Bur is from a word meaning a ring or protective casing – in this case a rather prickly one. The dock refers to a whole family of plants of various names all containing dock; it is unrelated to wharves or short tails.
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