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shameless pleading

Township

Neither here nor there.

Dear Word Detective: Though you occasionally have referred to your TWD Headquarters in rural Ohio and mention a particular “township,” I find no explanation of “township.” Even I can fathom the “town” part but whence “ship”? Maybe from some hippie commune’s hastily scrawled graffiti: “This town’s hip!”? OK, feeble, sorry! — Ken Young.

Oh yeah, this town’s hip, all right. In fact, this place is known as the Williamsburg of Central Ohio, the pre-war Paris of the US Midwest. Actually, the scary thing is that there are people around here who would agree with that. A few years ago someone on the radio, speaking about the annual festival in our county seat, described the environs of that fair city as the spitting image of Provence. Yes, that Provence. In the South of France. Um, yeah, OK, assuming Provence is now one huge strip mall plagued with exploding meth labs and random gunfire.

A “township,” at least in the Northeastern and Midwest US, is a division of land within a county. Townships frequently contain a town or two, but have their own elected government (in our case, three Trustees I call Larry, Moe and Surly). In a rural area such as ours, the Township Trustees polish the potholes, conduct the coin flip in zoning decisions, and ensure that the local schools don’t go puttin’ on airs.

Our modern English word “township” dates back to the Old English “tunscipe,” which combined “tun,” the earlier form of “town” (from Germanic roots, possibly via the Celtic “dun,” meaning “fortress, village, or garden”), plus “scipe,” a form of the common suffix “-ship.” That “ship” has many uses in English, but in this case it signifies a noun with a collective connotation.

That original collective sense of “township” came from the fact that “township” initially meant the inhabitants or population of a town or village; the people, rather than the place. The use of “township” in the sense of a geographical division didn’t arise until the 15th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), in the US and parts of Canada a “township” is a division of land “six miles square” (i.e., thirty-six square miles) determined by government survey and not necessarily “settled,” so a “township” could, in theory, consist of nothing but trees, rocks and chipmunks. On a less appealing note, the term “township” was also used during the apartheid period in South Africa to designate areas (usually brutally poor shantytowns) within or adjacent to cities, where black South Africans were forced to live.

I said that the suffix “-ship” has many meanings in English, and it’s a fascinating little critter. It comes from a Germanic root (“skap” or “scep”) which meant “to create, ordain or appoint,” and which also gave us “shape.” In ancient Germanic a form of the root was used as a suffix to denote “creation, creature, constitution, condition” (OED), and in Old English “-ship” was used to form words meaning conditions or habitual states, e.g., “druncenscipe” (“drunkenship”). It was also used to signify the state of being a certain thing, as in “friendship” or “partnership.” The suffix “ship” can also signal position or rank (“ambassadorship”), or be tacked onto a title as a form of address (“Your Ladyship”).

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