Thursday, July 17, 2008


Lucille from Traverse City asked about the term oxbow. She found it in Oxbow Lake, Kalkaska County, Michigan.

Variant forms of ox, the word referring to the large ruminant animal, are found early on in Old Frisian, Old Dutch, Old Saxon, Old Icelandic, Old Swedish, Danish, Gothic, and so on. It’s a testimony to the importance of the animal in agricultural use in northern climes.

A bow is something bent or fashioned so as to form part of the circumference of a circle or other curve; it’s a bend, or a bent line.

An oxbow was a bow-shaped piece of wood forming a collar for a yoked ox, with the upper ends fastened to the yoke.

In 18th century America, it was used to designate a pronounced meander or horseshoe-shaped loop in a river. It was also applied to a lake formed from an oxbow in a river when it silted up and became an enclosed body of water -- a lake.

Using the Google test, I found 1,120,000 returns for “Oxbow River” and 247,000 hits for “Oxbow Lake.”

The Oxford English Dictionary remarks that ox is the only word in general English use which retains the original plural ending -en (the reflex of Old English -an) of the weak declension.

SIDEBAR: The Oxbow Incident

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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