A short word, exhibiting thrift in form, soughing like the sound of a small, furry animal passing freely through grass or heather on the heath, or the breeze in the branches of a brushwood thicket. You can see the grass or the thicket in the varying-height ascenders, too… perhaps the r is a rabbit, seeking the sun.

Well, in the world of Watership Down by Richard Adams, that rabbit would be a follower of a sun-god named Frith. (Watership Down has nothing to do with ships sinking, a fact I discovered after agreeing to go see the movie when I was 10. Watership Down is the name of a hill in Hampshire. But there are some bloody battle scenes between rabbits.) If the word rings a bell for sci-fi fans, you may be thinking of scrith, which is what the Ringworld is made out of in Larry Niven’s books.

But this word is also a real word, come up from the old Anglo-Saxon roots. In fact, it’s at least five words – three nouns and two verbs. And, frankly, you’re unlikely to encounter any of them in the wild – the words, I mean; their referents persist.

The first noun is related to freedom and, in fact, means “freedom and security” – the freedom one has among one’s own people in a secure society, like the freedom of a rabbit in a warren. It has current cognates in other Germanic languages meaning “peace”: German Friede, Dutch vrede, etc.

The second noun refers to a wooded area, or more specifically to brushwood or underwood, such as rabbits out of the frith of their warren might hop through (the furry fellows swiftly whiffling from frith to frith).

The third noun is just a metathetic form of firth, not as in Colin Firth (a great actor) but as in an estuary, e.g., the Firth of Forth (which has a great bridge over it). The two verbs are just derived forms of the first two nouns.

This word has other overtones in sound, too. Frisk comes to mind, as does rift. Fifth is present, as is fourth. So is forth, as in what must be Frith’s first and greatest command to the rabbits: Go forth and multiply.

Thanks to Jens Wiechers for suggesting frith.

4 responses to “frith

  1. Goodness, I hope you’ve read Watership Down since then. The book is so much richer and deeper than the movie.

  2. Pingback: straphanger | Sesquiotica

  3. Pingback: frisky | Sesquiotica

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