Immediate origin uncertain; apparently either cognate with, or borrowed from one of, the following forms in other Germanic languages: Old Frisian plōch, plōg (West Frisian ploege, ploech, North Frisian pluwge), Middle Dutch ploech (Dutch ploeg), Middle Low German plōch, plūch, Old High German phluog (8th cent.; Middle High German phluoc, German Pflug), Old Icelandic plógr (in the poem Rígsþula, which was perhaps composed in the 10th cent., but shows probable reworking, perhaps in England, in the 11th cent.; also in Skaldic poetry of the mid 11th cent.), Norn (Shetland) plug, Old Swedish plogher (Swedish plog), Old Danish plogh (Danish plov), all in sense ‘plough’; the Germanic words are apparently related also to post-classical Latin plovum (mid 7th cent.), Italian regional (northern) piò, and perhaps also to classical Latin plaumorati (in an isolated attestation in Pliny, where it is apparently a loanword, and refers to a new type of plough with two wheels in use in Gaul; the word is sometimes regarded as plural (or genitive singular) and a (nominative) singular plaumoratum constructed, but the context is unclear). Further etymology unknown.
In formal terms, there is nothing to rule out the Old English word's being inherited from Germanic, rather than borrowed (either from another West Germanic language, or from early Scandinavian); however, it is not found at all in Old English in the (probably basic) sense 3a, and senses 1a and 2a are both rare and late in Old English. Earlier currency of the wordis probably implied by (rare) Old English plōgesland, plōgalandploughland n.; compare also Old English plōgagang (see plough-gang n.). It is notable that the earlier Old English word for the agricultural implement at 3a, sulh, survived in western and south-western English dialects (those spoken in the areas least influenced by Norse settlers) as sullow n., and it has often been assumed that the present word is a borrowing from early Scandinavian, earliest in the Danelaw areas.
However, the word also does not appear to be early in the Scandinavian languages, where the earlier name appears to have been arðr (cognate with Old Saxon erida; < the Germanic base of ear v.1), which survives in Norwegian as ar a small plough (compare ard n.; hence perhaps originally denoting an earlier and simpler implement than the plógr), and it has been suggested by some scholars that the early Scandinavian word was in fact a borrowing from Old English. The word is also not found in Gothic, which has hoha. It is perhaps most likely that the word occurred earliest in continental West Germanic (but not English, and not originally in either East Germanic or North Germanic), and was borrowed thence, either directly or indirectly, into both Old English and early Scandinavian. However, even this much is far from certain.
Compare Old Russian plug″ (Russian plug), Polish pług, Czech pluh, Lithuanian pliūgas, plūgas (probably all < German or other Germanic languages, although some have argued that these show an inherited Slavonic word ultimately of Indo-European origin); compare also Albanian plug plough. Perhaps compare also Albanian plor, Albanian regional (Tosk) pluar, (Gheg) pluer ploughshare, tip of a wooden plough, of uncertain origin.
As regards the further etymology, attempts have been made (in spite of the difficulties posed by the initial p and by the restricted distribution among Germanic languages) to regard the word as an inherited item in Germanic, and hence to link it with either of two different European Indo-European languages bases, or alternatively with the Germanic base of German pflegen (see plight n.1); alternatively, it has been explained as a loan either from another Indo-European language (perhaps Gaulish in view of Pliny's plaumorati) or from a non-Indo-European language. It seems unlikely that a consensus view will be reached.
In support of an etymological connection with the Germanic base of German pflegen attention has been drawn to Old Frisian plōch, plōg gainful employment, gain, profit, community of interests, Middle Dutch ploech division of a society, heap of things, Middle High German phluoc business, living, income, Old Icelandic plógr gain, produce; however, it has also been argued that these show a separate homonym, unrelated in origin to the word for ‘plough’.
As regards the developments shown by the forms of the word within English, the regular Old English inflection of plōh (also, with failure of devoicing of the final consonant, plōg) would be dative plōge, genitive plōges, nominative plural plōgas, giving in early Middle English ploh, ploȝe, ploȝes, and in later Middle English singular plouh, plowh, or plowgh, plural plowes; as these became homophonous in modern English there is levelling of the spellings to either plough, ploughs, or plow, plows; the former has been the accepted spelling in England since approximately 1700, while the latter is usual in the U.S. In pronunciation, the final consonant was lost in some districts in the 14th cent., and has quite disappeared not only in the standard language, but in all dialects south of the Peak of Derbyshire; it remains in parts of Scotland as /x/ (pleuch, pluich = /pløx/ /plʏx/ ), and in the north of England (if it is retained) it has generally developed to /f/ . In plough v. forms with retention of the final consonant are not found; in the noun, they perhaps result from early loss of final unstressed vowels, limiting the influence of the forms of the oblique cases.
- 1: In northern and eastern areas of England and Scotland: the name given to a unit of land capable of being tilled by a team of oxen in a year
- 2: a. A team of horses or oxen used for ploughing.
- b. A team of draught animals harnessed to a cart or wagon (sometimes taken to include the wagon)
- 3. a. An agricultural implement with one or more blades fixed in a frame, drawn over the soil to turn it up and cut furrows in preparation for the planting of seeds. Formerly often used metonymically as an emblem of agricultural life and labour
- b. In fig. uses. †(a) The instrument or means of earning one's livelihood (obs.); (b) something which breaks up, turns over, or cultivates (the mind, spirit, etc.)
- 4. Astronomy the Plough n. (the name of) a distinctive group of seven bright stars in the constellation Ursa Major. Also: the constellation itself.
- 5: Any of various implements, mechanical parts, etc., resembling an agricultural plough in shape or action.
- 6: Yoga. More fully plough pose. With the. A position assumed by lying on one's back and swinging one's legs over one's head until the outstretched feet approach or touch the floor.
The plough (American spelling: plow) is a tool used in farming for initial cultivation of soil in preparation for sowing seed or planting. It has been a basic instrument for most of recorded history, and represents one of the major advances in agriculture. The primary purpose of ploughing is to turn over the upper layer of the soil, bringing fresh nutrients to the surface, while burying weeds and the remains of previous crops, allowing them to break down. It also aerates the soil, and allows it to hold moisture better. In modern use, a ploughed field is typically left to dry out, and is then harrowed before planting.
Ploughs were initially pulled by oxen, and later in many areas by horses (generally draught horses) and mules. In industrialised countries, the first mechanical means of pulling a plough used steam-powered (ploughing engines or steam tractors), but these were gradually superseded by internal-combustion-powered tractors. In the past two decades plough use has reduced in some areas (where soil damage and erosion are problems), in favour of shallower ploughing and other less invasive tillage techniques.