Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Secret Meaning of "Riding"

The Election is coming up soon here in Canada, and all the fuss in the media is about the leaders of the various political parties and who among them would do the best job as Prime Minister. But in fact very few Canadians get to vote for the Prime Minister; for each of us votes for a member of Parliament to represent our riding.

Our riding?

Why "riding"? Why not electoral district, like they use in the United States?

A definition from about.com:
In Canada, a riding is a place or geographical area that is represented in the House of Commons by a member of parliament, or in provincial and territory elections an area represented by a member of the provincial or territory legislative assembly.

So? That still doesn't answer the question. I asked why, not what.

To find out why, we have to travel back, say 1000 years, to the age of Viking invasions along the Eastern coast of England. In between all their raping and pillaging, they managed to leave behind some vocabulary that worked its way into the common spoken vocabulary of the Britons.

So what is a riding? Is that the distance a person could "ride" in day? Is that it?

No. Wait for it.

The Vikings left us a word in old Norse:
þriðjungr.

Say that really fast ten times. No, don't. I don't want to be responsible for the oral surgery later.

Thridjungr means "a third part".

In 866 CE, the Vikings captured York and established a kingdom there, adopting the traditional county divisions of North, East and West.*

Thus,

North thridjungr, East thridjungr, and West thridjungr

Pardon my mix of languages, but that's how English goes sometimes.

By the time people were speaking what we call Middle English, the words had become

North thriding, East thriding, and West thriding.

Well, English speakers are notoriously unsentimental about old usages and pronunciations, and soon they stopped going to the trouble of pronouncing all those "th" and "t" sounds. The "th"s became "t"s. So

North triding, East triding, and West triding.

Then with the assimilation of the final t or th sounds in North, East and West with the initial t sounds in triding, we got

North triding, East triding, and West triding

or

North riding, East riding, and West riding.

And no riding of animals or vehicles was involved.

Future administrative divisions were also called "ridings," and this term came with the English colonial government in Canada. On ships. That's sailing, not riding.

And here riding remains, not riding anywhere, not related to a division of thirds, but resting in the etymological sediment of English History.


* The map depicted above is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England and Wales License. 

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