The word ‘garden’ is used as both a noun and a verb. Here we are concerned with the noun, although later we will be examining what it is ‘to garden’.
Perhaps we can get some insight into what a garden is by looking at the derivation of the word itself, its etymology. Peering into the distant past we find that the word ‘garden’ is of ancient origin, derived from the Old English ghordos, an Indo-European word for ‘enclosure’ from which we obtain the English words ‘yard’ and ‘orchard’. We can see this common origin in other modern European languages, the German garten, French jardin, and Italian giardino. But we can step back further in time to the Old English geard which is derived from Proto-Germanic gardaz, from Proto-Indo-European gÿórdÿos (yard, enclosure, court). From similar origins we have the Old Frisian garda, Old Saxon gard, gardo, Dutch gaard, Old High German gart (obsolete German Gart), Old Norse (Icelandic , Swedish and Danish gård), Gothic (gards). The old Indo-European root is also the source of the Latin hortus, the Ancient Greek (khórtos), Proto-Slavic gord (Old Church Slavonic, Russian (town)), Lithuanian gardas, Albanian gardh (fence).
From a different linguistic route we have the ancient Persian word for ‘enclosure’ as pairidaeza, (pairi-around, daÿza-wall) translated into the Hebrew as pardes, a word encompassing both hunting parks and walled gardens and which, with the translation of the Bible into Greek, became paradeisos from which are derived the English words ‘park’ and, of course, ‘paradise’.
From the etymology of the word ‘garden’ it is clear that, historically at least, it is the idea of enclosure that most closely captures what it is to be a garden, which is not surprising when we consider that early gardens would have needed protection from not only rain, wind, the elements and possibly other people but, more importantly, both wild and domesticated animals. Perhaps today the actual structural barrier as, say, a wall, fence or hedge, is of slightly less importance, although the idea of a garden as a ‘bounded space’ remains relevant.
We get an indication of the many different kinds of early gardens from Latin scholars in the period of the Roman empire and after. From them we have not only the word hortus, garden (and therefore the word ‘horticulture’), but also: hortulus, little garden (the Domesday Book of 1086 mentions both); hortus conclusus, an enclosed or cloistered garden; hortus siccus, a dry garden (a collection of pressed plants or herbarium); hortus academicus, an educational, demonstration, or Botanic garden; hortus amoenus, a beautiful or pleasing garden; hortus amorem a garden for love. A gardener in a medieval monastery was called a hortulanus.
While engaging with linguistics we might consider the origins of a few related words: the Latin Middle Age word herba, meaning a plant of any kind, including trees, is a word derived from herbarius (plants) as opposed to bestiaries (animals, and not to be confused with a bestiarus who was a Roman gladiator who fought animals in the arena). The word ‘botany’ comes from the ancient Greek word βοτάνη meaning ‘pasture’, ‘grass’, or ‘fodder’, although the Greek word itself is derived from βόσκειν ‘to feed or graze’ before being applied in more recent times first to the study of herbs used in medicine and then today to mean, more or less, ‘plant science’. Perhaps the Middle English word wyrt or wort, deserves a mention, familiar in names like Stonewort or liverwort. But I am getting off topic.
To this inventory must be added the Sumerian word for garden which is kiri (noun ki – place, verb – ru, to send forth shoots, buds and blossoms) which is likely the root of the Assyrian kirû (garden, grove or tree plantation) and kirimÿhu (pleasure garden), in turn probably related to the Hebrew kar (pasture, enclosed pasture), karmel (plantation) and kerem (vineyard), all derived from the verb khr, to dig. I mention this last suite of ancient words because they are probably the oldest words we know denoting gardens.