“Border crisis” may be the noun phrase of the American moment. Not too long ago, I looked at the origin of crisis in a different border battle. But the word border itself may be having something of its own etymological crisis.


Border, attested in the geographic sense in the 1500s, is first documented in the English of the 14th century, traced to the French bordure, referring to an “edge,” frequently of a shield. Indeed, bordure still refers to the edge of shield in heraldry. The French term is widespread in the Romance languages and may be from a Romanic root *bordus.

This is where the borders get blurred, because border may abut the same origin as board.

Board is from the Old English bord. This bord had two meanings: 1) a plank, or a material board; and 2) the side of a ship, an edge. These words and their origins get confusing and confused. They may ultimately be the same word; they may not. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology casts doubt on a common origin, while the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots grounds them in the same source.

From the first, we get things like cardboard and cupboardTables were made of boards, where food was eaten, hence room and board. Important people gather around tables for important meetings, and thus we have school board and the boardroom. Thus, board meaning table, food, or a certain collection of people functions as form of metonymy, which has graced us with its presence quite a bit lately (cf. gavel and sekw).  Seaboard retains the meaning of “edge,” and I couldn’t have typed this without my keyboard.

“Old Mother Hubbard / Went to the cupboard / To give the poor dog a bone”: from the Sarah Catherine Martin’s “The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog,” first published in England in 1805. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This board may have built bordello, from the French bordel, a “small hut,” from borde, a kind of wooden “hovel.” The word, obviously, came to refer to a brothel.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology takes this board back to a Germanic base, *borðam, formed on *breð-. The root meaning is glossed as “board.”

From the second board, we get things like starboard and to board a planeStarboard has nothing to do with stars, as the first element is related to the word steerLarboard had to walk the plank for port; its first element may be connected to load. This board goes back to a Germanic base, *borðaz.

This Germanic *borðaz may have taken up as the Romanic *bordus we saw before. French developed bord (also, bort) for “side of a ship” but also as “plank,” confusing the already confused Old English bord, which could mean “side of a ship” and “plank.” Eesh. This is partly why it’s hard to sort the boards out.


One side of the border are those, like the Oxford scholars, who keep the boards separate. On the other, we have scholars of the American Heritage Dictionary who join them way back in the Proto-Indo-European *bherdh-, “to cut.”

Both board and border, as American Heritage surveys the territory, were descended from the root’s Germanic heir, *burdam, which is proposed to mean “plank,” “board,” and “table,” returning us right back to our drawing board.  Planks, boards, tables, ship sides–all cut from wood. Edges, borders–the cutting off point, so to speak.

Board may play its games, but bordersas well see all too often, whether in North American, Eastern Europe, or the Middle East, are certainly no board games.

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