Gorse, Furze, and Whin

A few years ago, an acquaintance emailed me in extreme frustration because he’d looked up furze, a word he encountered while reading a mystery set in Scotland, in a dictionary. The definition for furze was “whin; gorse.” When he looked up whin and gorse their entries referred him to furze. I’ve had similar and equally annoying experiences with dictionaries, and immediately understood his frustration. I promised him I’d post about all three words.

Gorse, as the AHD notes, is

Any of several spiny shrubs of the genus Ulex, especially U. europaeus, native to Europe and having fragrant yellow flowers and black pods. Also called furze, whin.

Ulex europaeus from Ayrshire, Scotland
Credit: Roger Griffith

That’s a picture of the most common species of gorse in Scotland and the UK, Ulex europaeus “Common gorse.” It grows on otherwise barren land, in sandy soil with good sun exposure; it has glossy green leaves, spines, and grows as a low shrub where not much else grows. In the spring it has bright yellow flowers. When sheep or goats eat the surface vegetation, the plant survives and puts out new shoots. The seeds are contained in hard black seed-pods, and will often survive and sprout even better after a fire. It is in fact exceedingly flammable, and may well have adapted specifically to survive sporadic fires, particularly those from lightening strikes. While Gorse is not native to North America, European Common Gorse has made its way here, probably both accidentally in seed form, and with intent, because Scots settlers from Scotland and by way of Canada brought it with them as a crop for cattle and sheep, a plant to use in dyeing fabric, and as an ornamental reminder of home.

Unfortunately, the Gorse thrived since the birds and other natural predators adapted to consume the gorse in Scotland and the U.K. didn’t come to North America  with the Gorse. Consequently, Gorse is officially listed as an invasive and nuisance plant, a noxious weed in western Washington state. In New Zealand, where Gorse has also triumphed over the native plant life, Gorse often serves to spread fires by providing fodder for the flames. Gorse is generally perceived as the most noxious invasive week in New Zealand.

Gorse and furze and whin all refer to exactly the same plant. But each synonym was probably from a different Germanic dialect; gorse and furze are gorst and fyrs in Old English, and were likely words for the same plant from different dialect of Old English.

Whin, or whinne in Middle English appears to be borrowed from a Scandinavian language, probably Old Norse, but possibly Danish. Saxon, Norse, and Danish were all spoken by Germanic invaders who settled in various parts of England; all have left their mark on English, just as much as the plant has marked the landscape.

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