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The Word

The great 'scape

Everything's a landscape now

By Jan Freeman
October 5, 2008
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THE LANDSCAPES MAKING news these days aren't the kind with trees and mountains and cottony clouds. Instead, our gaze is riveted by the metaphorical landscapes - political, financial, economic - whose contours are shifting by the hour.

The proliferation of figurative landscapes caught the eye of reader Ben Wolfe, who e-mailed to ask "when and how the word landscape was borrowed from discussions of physical landscapes to more abstract uses."

Correctly or not, I read the question as if it assumed that landscapes first existed "out there," in nature, and then were turned into the "landscapes" we frame and hang above the fireplace. So my first surprise, when I went looking for an answer, was that landscape arrived in English as a term of art, not nature.

The word - spelled in various ways - was borrowed, in the late 16th century, from the Dutch, who were hard at work reshaping their country's fluid landscape, and whose painters and engravers were busy recording the results. And the artists' word is the one that English adopted.

One of the early examples in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from a 1603 poem by Joshua Sylvester, celebrating the Creator as an artist, "Limning a Land-scape, various, rich, and rare," who has laid down his "weary Pencill" on the seventh day to rest and admire his work.

But "landscape" meaning "outdoor view" is not far behind. Milton, in 1632, writes in "L'Allegro," "mine eye has caught new pleasures / Whilst the Lantskip round it measures." Throughout the 18th century, landscape stretches its figurative reach; it's used to mean a mental picture, a map view, and a sketch in words. And landscape gardening, the phrase and the pursuit, make their appearance in the second half of the century.

Not until the 19th century, though, do we find landscape architecture as art and profession. Oddly enough, Frederick Law Olmsted, who practically owns the label, didn't like it. "I am all the time bothered with the miserable nomenclature of L[andscape]A[rchitecture]," he wrote in an 1865 letter. "Landscape is not a good word, Architecture is not; the combination is not. Gardening is worse."

Meanwhile, the "scape" part of landscape - originally a variant of the suffix -ship, which indicates state or condition in nouns like friendship, authorship, partnership - had broken free of its noun and set itself up as a separate word, a scape that could show not just land but sea or sky. It was a short hop from that solo act to an adventurous career as a new suffix, willing to partner with any noun that asked. Prison-scape, cloud-scape, brick-scape, mud-scape, mindscape, junglescape - those are some of the combinations the OED records over two centuries, and there are more where those came from.

Not till the 19th century, though, do we see many of the big-picture conceptual compounds that litter today's figurative landscape. Google Books finds an 1818 example of "his wide intellectual landscape," meaning one man's learning and memories. In 1871, Disraeli uses the phrase in today's more general sense: "A single phrase of a great man instantaneously flings sunshine on the intellectual landscape."

James Fenimore Cooper, in 1835's "The Monikins," wrote of "this vexatious question, which had hung like a cloud over the otherwise unimpaired brightness of the political landscape." And a speech at the dedication of Edinburgh's New College, in 1850, mentioned "what we may call the philosophical landscape."

The banking landscape, the music landscape, the retail landscape, the medical landscape, the education landscape - today there's more terrain than ever that we need to keep an eye on. So maybe it's no surprise that the landscapes we invoke are so often abstract swaths of subject matter, and so rarely scenes of actual mountains, valleys, seashores, and starscapes.

. . .

OFF MIC: Readers of a certain age keep wondering, as I do, why the word mic has sprung into existence when we already had mike, on the model of bike and trike, as a short form of microphone. Some people - those who don't mind sounding like grumpy geezers - say it's probably because recent generations have learned the word from the tiny label for the microphone jack on their electronic equipment. But I know literate folks under 40 for whom mic is normal, so that can't be the whole story.

According to the OED, mike dates to 1926, while the upstart mic comes along in 1961. Those of us who like mike argue that mic isn't logical, even for English: It ought to rhyme with sic, tic, Vic, and Bic. But there's a consistency issue as well: Mike is also a verb, one that usually appears as a past participle. Can you really read that a performer has been "miced" without visualizing some sicko ritual involving a pack of nibbling rodents?

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