This was originally published in my work Slack on 2016-11-11, but I’ve since been convinced that more people than just those few who can even read it there might be interested. I’ve edited it for clarity and correctness. I’m going to migrate all my Linguistics Minutes over to my blog and probably post future ones here.

So the word mark means (at least in one of its meanings) “to make an area of some surface a different color than the surrounding area”. As in, “making a mark on a page.” This is a pretty old word in English, but it originally had a different meaning.

Old English merc or mearc (different dialects) meant “a border or boundary” and came from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European *merg- with the same meaning. Because it meant “border”, people would use it to refer to the regions near the edge of a kingdom. When cartography became a thing, then, people would draw a line to deliniate the mark between two kingdoms. Thence, mark started to refer to the line drawn to illustrate the border and then broadened to mean any line or symbol put on a surface. With this in mind, it makes sense that Denmark is the country where the Danes live.

As a bit of an asside: French (not a Germanic language) inherited a related word from Frankish (a Germanic language) that ended up as marcher “to march, walk” and that became modern English’s march after the Norman invasion in 1066.

The way this got from “border region” to “to walk” is that border regions of kingdoms were often mostly rural, so “the marches” started to refer to the countryside generally. And, of course, wars and fighting are more common on your borders than your interior, so armies spent a lot of time in the marches. They verbed the noun so that it meant, “to go be an army and do army things in the countryside” and marching around from place to place is a thing armies do, well, a lot, so the meaning narrowed to reflect that mode of travel by armies.

A lot of the words English borrowed from French after 1066 are words to do with war, which is a strong statement about the relationship between the Normans and the English at that time.

Appendix A: Tolkien nerddom

In The Two Towers, Aragorn asks Éomer for “news from the Riddermark”. He’s referring, here, to Rohan (the kingdom Éomer is from). This is a pseudo-Old-English word that Tolkien constructed because Old English stands in for the language of the Rohirrim (for super nerdy reasons, which I will tell you if you ask, but be wary, I may not shut up for a long time thereafter). The word basically means “the borderland of the riders”.

It seems like a weird thing to refer to a whole country as a borderland, but it’s because Aragorn is culturally very close to Gondor and originally Rohan was just a province of Gondor. It was their northern-most border province, in fact. And after the Horse Lords came to Gondor’s aid in some war or other, they were granted the province to live in as a sovereign nation.

They used this line in the movie without explaining it at all (and the explanation in the books is cursory) and I bet most people were just like, “Oh. Another name I don’t know. Why does every person and thing have a million names in this damn story and ʜᴏᴡ ʟᴏɴɢ ʜᴀᴠᴇ ᴛʜᴇʏ ʙᴇᴇɴ ᴡᴀʟᴋɪɴɢ ғᴏʀ?!?!” Which is reasonable. But… now you know.