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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a path leading through a cornfield

A path that leads through a cornfield—especially one used by people on their way to church—is a messagate, or messigate.

That’s a term from the far north of Scotland, pinpointed by both the English Dialect Dictionary and the Scottish National Dictionary as originating in Orkney.

Anyone who knows their Scots history will know that Orkney (along with the Shetland Islands and much of the mainland Caithness peninsula) was long controlled by the Norwegian crown. As such it shows a great deal more Norse influence in its regional language than much of the rest of Scotland (and, for that matter, much of the rest of the UK).

Messagate is no exception, as it brings together the Old Norse words messa, meaning a communion service (i.e. a Christian mass), and gata, meaning a way or route. The original messagates, ultimately, were routes to church—but presumably because such routes so frequently passed through farmers’ fields, the word eventually came to be used of any path or walkway that runs through a cornfield.

One final point here, though, in response to a few comments from Twitter. In British English, the word corn is often used vaguely to refer to any farmed crop, particularly the chief agricultural produce of a given area—not necessarily corn, but the likes of wheat, barley, or oats. In American English, corn refers specifically to the crop known elsewhere as maize—but this meaning would certainly not have been the sense intended in many of the nineteenth century dictionaries that recorded this term. Thus the word messagate is best interpreted as a path leading through any large-scale, crop-filled field.

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