Monday, December 10, 2007


The word steep may have arisen from a Scandinavian word describing the process of soaking barley in order to make a malt.

As a noun, it means the soaking process, the liquid used in maceration, and the wild midday plunge taken by a stag in hot weather. Who would have known?

The adjective has meant elevated or lofty, having a high voice, brilliant (such as the eyes or stars), perpendicular and precipitous, arduous and difficult, violent or extreme, and excessive or extravagant. It’s all over the landscape.

The verb means to soak in water or some other liquid, to bathe or envelop as in a mist, to soak a weapon in blood, to deaden the senses, and to place in a sloping condition.

By the way, did you know that 8 1/2 bushels of good dry barley will, after forty-eight hours steep, swell to exactly 100 bushels? So says the 1896 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. Better check that leaky storage shed.

The word steeple--a lofty tower forming part of a church, temple, or other public edifice (often serving to contain the bells)--is obviously connected. These days, a steeplechase is a man-made course supplied with artificial fences, water-jumps, and other obstacles to test horse and rider. Originally, racers picked out a distant church steeple and raced towards it, dealing with whatever obstacles intervened: ditch, fence, hedge, etc. The first one to reach the church was the winner.

SIDEBAR: The Steep Canyon Rangers

SIDEBAR: Steep cliffs on Mars

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