Sunday, September 25, 2011

Riding, Farthing, Reeve & Sheriff

Here in Saskatchewan, we are coming up to a provincial election. Each district in which a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA for short) is elected is called a riding. This word has an interesting etymology – it started when the County of Yorkshire was divided into three administrative divisions by the ruling Danes probably in the 10th century.

Yorkshire was ruled by the Danes between 866 and 1066 which resulted in a higher proportion of Old Norse words adopted into Yorkshire English than in any other part of Britain. One of these words was thrithi for thirds. This became thriding in Old English when applied to one of the three Yorkshire divisions – West Thriding, East Thriding and North Thriding. Because of the “t” or “th” endings of the first words in the names, the “th” of thriding was dropped to form simply riding. My Bielby ancestors on my maternal grandmother’s side came from a small village in East Riding.

A similar word is farthing, created from a “fourth-ing”. A farthing is an English coin worth ¼ of a penny – the smallest coin in British currency, hence symbolically of very little value. In Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, a farthing is one of four regions of the Shire.

While on Saskatchewan politics, another word that comes to mind is reeve. In the western provinces and parts of Ontario, the reeve is the elected chair of a rural municipal council (equivalent to the mayor of a town). Reeve comes from Old English “gerefa” and was used in Anglo-Saxon times in Britain for a number of minor local officials. It is no longer used in Britain (to my knowledge) but has survived in “the colonies”. Similarly sheriff originated as “shire reeve” – the reeve of a Shire. I don’t know to what extent a sheriff is still used in Britain, but the position was made famous by American western novels and movies, and is still used today, in varying roles, in many American States and in Canada.

So at election time, remember that the word riding originally meant a third of Yorkshire, and reeve was rescued from extinction by Canadian municipal government. And when reading a Zane Gray or Louis L’Amour novel or watching an old “cowboys and Indians” movie, remember that the hero’s title of sheriff originated as a “shire reeve” in England. Of course not all sheriffs are heroes – like any government official, a sheriff’s position is susceptible to corruption, as attested to by the reputation of the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Robin Hood stories.


  1. I apologize for not posting in two weeks. Just been busy with work and other stuff. I have been reading a new book by David Crystal called "By Hook or by Crook - a Journey in Search of English" which I will be drawing from for my next few posts. Most of the information for this post came from this book.

  2. Good post. I knew about Sheriff but not about the other words. So that is why a constituency is called a riding? Often wondered and thoght it had to do with campaigning on horseback or something. Made my morning. Thanks.

  3. This was a really interesting post, Uncle Stan. I actually just read a book called "South Riding" set in the fictionalized South Riding of Yorkshire. It's interesting to find out that a South thriding would be impossible, since it was already divided into 3 with West, East, and North.

  4. BF - horseback was a good guess. Seems logical but etymology is not always as simple as it appears. There is a horse-related precedent though. The Rural Municipalities in Saskatchewan are basically 9 townships (a township being 6 x 6 miles or 36 square-mile Sections). As I understand it, the rationale for this size (in 1909) was to allow farmers to drive by horse and wagon (or buggy if they had one) to a council meeting held somewhere near the middle of the RM.

  5. Ky - too funny! Either the author didn't do his/her research thoroughly or decided to apply poetic license and hope that most of the readers wouldn't know the difference. Were the other three Ridings mentioned in the story? If one of them, say North Riding, had been omitted and replaced with South, it would be fine. If not, then I suppose it should have been called South Farthing!

  6. I was just introduced to a fascinating blog by Dr Beachcombing. A recent post titled "Lost in Transmission" discusses words or phrases that have changed over time to the point where the original meaning is lost.