The History of the Word Hedge – The New York Times

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As a verb, “hedge” first meant to create a border with shrubbery. But it’s not just land that can be hedged: so too can bets, investments and words.

In June, Debra Kamin, who covers real estate, wrote about the hedges that hid the homes of Hollywood’s rich and famous: “From the street, a passer-by would have no idea that an alternate universe exists just beyond their leafy green walls.”


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According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, a hedge is a row of closely planted shrubs; it can also be anything that acts as a barrier. Long before they shielded celebrities from the paparazzi, hedges were used to denote property ownership, retain livestock and protect land from wild animals or other threats. Hedges in the English countryside date back to at least the Bronze Age; eventually, manicured hedges became an integral part of garden design. A Times article from 1937 claimed there were few parts of landscaping “so important as the hedge.”

Hedges have also been used in combat to conceal lines of fire; “hedgerow fighting” is perhaps best known for its use in the Battle of Normandy in 1944. (Though closely related to the hedge, a hedgerow may include features like a wall or trees in addition to shrubs.)

As a verb, “hedge” originally meant to create a physical border or to guard land with a hedge. The phrase “to hedge a bet” first appeared in 1672 in a satirical play. Someone who “hedges” a bet is trying to protect him or herself from a loss by making a counterbalancing bet. According to Grant Barrett, the head of lexicography for Dictionary.com, the phrase was an “outgrowth” of hedge’s earlier meaning. With a hedged bet, “you’re trying to define the borders of your risk,” he said.

A 1991 Times article about the Boston Marathon cautioned readers to “hedge a bet” on Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway, the world-record holder, as she hadn’t raced the distance in two years. (She came in sixth.) That year, as longer hemlines inched into vogue, fashion designers “tended to hedge their bets” by showing detachable skirts on the runway.

Just as you can hedge a bet, you can also hedge your words. “Hedging,” or adding a caveat to a statement, creates ambiguity; doing so may protect speakers when they are unsure of something. According to a Times Opinion essay in 2014, “hedge words” like “sort of” and “kind of” will “lessen a statement’s force or meaning.” (According to Webster’s, the verb “to hedge” can mean to hide behind words, as one could hide behind a hedge.)

Another inflection point for “hedge” came in 1949, when Alfred Winslow Jones, a sociologist, established what is considered to be the first modern hedge fund. By both buying and shorting stocks, he claimed his portfolio was “hedged” against market swings. “A hedge not only defines borders, but it protects,” Mr. Barrett of Dictionary.com said. If you invest in a hedge fund, he said, you’re trying to protect yourself from risk.

(Though Mr. Jones is credited with coining the phrase, it was used before in a literal sense. In 1906, an issue of The Baldwin Ledger, a newspaper from Kansas, wrote about a picnic that benefited local “campus hedge funds.”)

In the 1960s, for reasons unknown, “hedge,” in its many forms, spiked in use in The Times. Stocks were purchased “as a hedge against inflation.” Politicians were “hedging” their statements on prayers in public schools. And a hemlock measuring 12 feet caused tension at the 1964 World’s Fair: A man called the hedge in question “a spite fence” because it blocked the view of his ice show.

After a contentious exchange, gardeners employed by the fair trimmed the hedge.

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