A bog by any other name…

 “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

  By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Well, it might be true of roses, but when it comes to peatlands, names are very important! Because they are found all over the world and in a whole host of environments, there are a number of different types of peatland, all going by a variety of different names – it can get a bit confusing! Most people will be familiar with many of the more common names, but will perhaps be unaware that they all, at least in part, refer to a type of peatland.

First off, we need to understand a few key terms:

‘Wetland’

A wetland can be defined as any environment where the water table is close to, or above, the surface for at least part of the year. Obviously this covers a huge range of environments, from coastal salt marshes to alpine meadows, and makes classifications complicated. In terms of peatlands and bogology though, there’s an easy way to remember the basics:

All peatlands are wetlands, but not all wetlands are peatlands!

A variety of different wetland environments, none of which are peatlands!

‘Peatland’

We use this word a lot on this site, but what does it actually mean? Generally speaking, the term ‘peatland’ covers any ecosystem in which over 30-40cm of peat has formed. Peat is classed as an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation and is therefore not a ‘soil’, at least not in the traditional sense. As we’ve talked about previously, peatlands can then be divided into two categories: those which receive all their water and nutrients from rain and snow (‘ombrotrophic’ or rain-fed); and those which also receive water and, therefore, nutrients from the surrounding landscape, via streams, springs or groundwater (‘minerotrophic’). Most ombrotrophic peatlands are referred to as ‘bogs’ and most minerotrophic peatlands are referred to as ‘fens’.

Ok, so far it doesn’t sound too complicated: all peatlands are wetlands, but not all wetlands are peatlands, and peatlands are generally classed as either ‘bogs’ or ‘fens’, depending on how they obtain their water and nutrients. Easy! Right?

Well, here’s where it starts getting complicated:

‘Mire’

This word is used a lot and most people will be familiar with this one, not least because it has also come to refer to a difficult condition or situation and sometimes it is even used as a verb to describing the action of becoming stuck or sinking, as if on the surface of a soggy peatland! Obviously Bogologists object to this negative sterotpying of peatlands, but that’s another story! The word actually comes from the Old Norse word, ‘myrr’, which probably found its way into Old English at some point in the 9th century. English speakers use it to refer to all sorts of different peatland environments. Essentially then, the word ‘mire’ means the same thing as ‘peatland’.

‘Bog’

“We know that one” I hear you cry! Well yes, a ‘bog’ is generally considered to be any ombrotrophic peatland – but there’s a catch! There are a couple of different types of ‘bog’. Most of the work we do as Bogologists focuses on ‘raised’ ombrotrophic bogs – systems which tend to take on a ‘domed’ appearance over time as they accumulate. But ‘blanket’ bogs are also ombrotrophic. They form in areas where rainfall is so high that, when combined with low temperatures and evaporation rates, conditions are created in which peat can develop over vast expanses, blanketing the landscape – hence the name!

The largest area of blanket bog in Europe is known as the ‘Flow Country’, located in the Caithness and Sutherland areas of northern Scotland. If you think the name for this region comes from a description of the way the blanket bog ‘flows’ over the landscape, then you might not be too far wrong. In the Scots dialect, the word ‘flow’ is often used instead of the English word ‘bog’. It’s likely that the Scots word is derived from the Old Norse word ‘floi’ meaning marshy ground. The English meaning of ‘flow’ also stems from its Old Norse equivalent ‘floa’. In truth, the words are likely to be very closely linked. Perhaps ironically, the English word ‘bog’ actually comes from Gaelic, which is spoken in some parts of Scotland!

‘Morass’, ‘Moor’, ‘Moss’ or ‘Muskeg’?!

A word occasionally used in the British Isles to describe low-lying, soggy ground is ‘morass’ – variations of the word are still used to describe peatlands in the Netherlands (‘moreas’) and Germany (‘morast’). This sounds not unlike ‘moor’, which is frequently used to describe areas of heathland and blanket bog (e.g. Dartmoor in Devon; Rannoch Moor in northern Scotland).

Another curious one is ‘moss’. Most people would associate this word with the plants that grow in damp locations, including peatlands. In Scots and northern English dialects, however, the world is also used to refer to bogs. In turn, the term spread to northern Ireland, as large numbers of Scots speakers settled in the region in the early 17th century. What’s not clear is whether the plant was named after the bog, or the bog was named after the plant!

Variants of the word were used all over northern Europe in the middle ages, in Old English, Dutch and German, to refer to bogs and swamps, but the all of these probably stemmed from the Old Norse, ‘mosi’. It has been suggested that this, in turn, stems from the Medieval Latin word ‘mossa’, which was used to refer to the same peatland systems. The problem is that that in classical (i.e. older) Latin, the word for moss was ‘musco’ or ‘muscus’, but this referred to the plants, not the systems! Clearly the development and usage of the words and their meanings is interlinked and we may never find out which came first – much like the chicken and the egg!

Another term that is generally synonymous with ‘bog’, but that has very different origins than those discussed so far is ‘muskeg’. Originating from ‘maskek’ a word from the Native American language, Cree, meaning low-lying marsh, this term is used in North America, particularly in Alaska and western Canada.

 And many, many ‘moor’…

 We could go on forever really – and we haven’t even talked about the different words associated with ‘fens’, the minerotrophic cousin of the bog! We’ve generally focussed on words that are used by English speakers here, but of course every country has its own set of terms. Many in Europe are unsurprisingly similar – the result of thousands of years of shared knowledge, culture and, therefore, language. It’s also not surprising then, that some words used in the Americas can be traced back to indigenous languages.

The issue is that all these different words are used to describe peatlands in different regions of the world that, consequently, all have subtly different characteristics. As a result, it’s extremely difficult to come up with anything more than a very broad set of set of peaty classifications – who would want to get rid of all these fantastic words anyway! Perhaps we’ll get on to ‘pomponales’, ‘várzea’, and ‘pocosins’ another day…?

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