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Monday, May 20, 2019

At your service

Spring has finally arrived here in southern Ontario, and among the many trees bursting into bloom is the serviceberry. I snapped the one above outside my local library a few days ago.

It got me wondering, why is it called a serviceberry? Of service to whom?

Turns out that it has nothing at all to do with the common word "service", which is derived from the Latin servus (slave).

The tree in question, Amelanchier to give it its botanical name, is very common in North America, and when English-speaking settlers arrived, they noticed a similarity between its fruit and the fruit of a tree they knew back home, a relative of the pear.

Way back in Anglo-Saxon times, that tree, Pyrus domestica, and its fruit, had been called a syrfe. By the 1400s, syrfe had morphed into serve and the plural had become servys. But after another century, people, possibly confused by the arrival of the other "service" from French, forgot that servys was already a plural and started to talk about eating "services" and to call the tree a "service tree". A similar evolution happened with the word "quince".

This was just in time for English speakers to migrate to North America and discover the Amelanchier, whose fruit looked like the berries of the service tree. As was the case with much flora and fauna (e.g. "robin", which is a red-breasted wren in England and a much larger red-breasted thrush in North America), it was just easier to apply a name for a similar European species than to think up a new name. So the North American shrub was baptized "serviceberry".

But in Western Canada, Amelanchier goes by a different name altogether: saskatoon.

This name is derived from Cree misâskwatômina. I am grateful to Cree scholar Arok Wolvengrey for the following explanations:

One interpretation of this could be "the tree with many branches", constituted from /mis-/ "big, much, plenty" + /-âskwatw/ "branch". (If you look at my picture of my local serviceberry, this is a very apt description of the tree's growth habit.) 

Another interpretation is that the compound word should be analysed as coming from /mis-/ "big, much, plenty" + /-âskw-/ "wood" + /atw-/ "arrow". The branches of the saskatoon bush were much prized for their suitability for making arrows. It is, therefore, the "shrub/bush that produces a lot of arrow wood".

It's very common in the Prairies to find pies, jams, syrups, and so on made from saskatoons, which look like blueberries and have a somewhat similar taste. I haven't seen any serviceberry products in Ontario, though. Perhaps I should go berry picking later this summer on a visit to my library.

For the stories behind names of other plants you might find in your garden, please click here:

About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.