Bark

And they can’t dance worth beans.

Dear Word Detective:  I did it the other day, and boy, did it hurt!  What is the derivation of to “bark your shins”? — Elspeth.

That’s a darn good question, which raises another question, which is why it took me a rather long time to get around to answering your question.  Well, I’ve been busy raising a couple of dogs, with all the running around to soccer practice, dance classes and orthodontist’s appointments that entails.  But now that Brownie and Pokie are in college, I can finally read some of my back email, and here we are.  Just kidding.  They’re really just chewing up the carpet and barking at trees.  So I guess the orthodontist was a real waste.

You’ll notice that I cleverly managed to slip the verb “to bark” into that paragraph, although I’m not sure how you’d write about dogs and not mention “barking.”  It’s what they do.  In fact, I once floated a proposal (which was quickly shot down) to change Brownie’s name to “Doorbell” (a duty she performs admirably) and Pokie’s to “Barkie” (because she will bark at changes in the barometric pressure).

The sort of “bark” that dogs (and certain other animals, such as foxes) make, what the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “to utter a sharp explosive cry,” is, as you might expect, a very old word, derived from the Old English word “beorcan.”  Many etymologists believe that the origin of “bark” lies in an ancient modification of the verb “to break,” conveying the sense of a sharp, sudden sound evocative of something being violently broken.  We also use “bark” in a figurative sense to mean “to speak forcefully and harshly,” as a drill sergeant might “bark” orders.

The question, of course, is whether the “bark” of a dog is in any way connected to the “bark” of your question, i.e., “to scrape or rub off the skin, especially from the shins; to abrade one’s skin.”  The answer is no.  While it is theoretically possible to “bark” your shins on an unusually coarse-haired dog, and the dog may “bark” at you when you do, the two “barks” are unrelated.  The injure-your-shin verb “to bark” comes from the “bark” one finds on trees (more specifically, as the American Heritage Dictionary says, “the tough outer covering of the woody stems and roots of trees, shrubs, and other woody plants”).  “Bark” in this “tree skin” sense was derived from the Old Norse “borkr,” and first appeared in English around 1300.

As anyone who has ever actually hugged a tree (don’t ask) knows, the bark of the average  tree is remarkably abrasive, and even brushing against a tree with your bare skin can be extremely painful.  But “barking” in the “scrape” sense didn’t come from people running into trees.  “Barking” has also meant “removing the bark from a tree” (an easy way to kill an unwanted tree) since the 16th century, and “bark” has been used as slang for “the human skin” since the 18th century (“With the ‘bark’ all off his shins from a blow with a hockey stick,” 1876).  So it is the person’s “bark” — the skin — that is being abraded and removed, much as the bark of a tree might be stripped.

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