Posted by: Borderless Borderguard | January 28, 2008

Etymology and Terminology

Border, boundary, frontier, limits, marches are the words used sometimes synonymously to denote the end of something, the limits of science, territory, patience, etc. This section looks closely at definitions, etymology and scholarly usage of the terms for border. The section particularly analyses border definitions of Prescott (1978), Anderson and Bort (1996) and Parker (2006).The New Penguin Compact English Dictionary (2001) defines the word ‘border’ as (1) ‘an outer part or edge’, or (2) ‘a boundary or frontier’. The word ‘bound’ means: 1) ‘a limiting line; a boundary’; 2) ‘something that limits or restrains’; A boundary, according to the same dictionary means 1) ‘something, esp. a dividing line, that indicates or fixes limit or extent’; 2) ‘a border or frontier’. Frontier is defined as 1) ‘a border between two countries’; 2) ‘a region that forms the margin of settled or developed territory’; 3) ‘the boundary between the known and the unknown’; Frontiersman, frontierswoman, or a borderer ‘is a man or a woman living on the frontier’ or border.

From the first view it would seem like all these words could be used interchangeably, as they are, seemingly, synonyms. But in the course of this section it will be clear that it would be scholarly inexcusable to use these terms inaccurately, i.e. interchangeably (see Prescott 1978).

It is interesting that the verb of the word ‘border’ means connection, while the noun means separation or the end/edge of something. Of all the above mentioned words only the word ‘border’ possesses a verb form, namely ‘to border’, which means somewhat connection or link. The new Penguin Compact English Dictionary (2001) defines the verb ‘to border’ as: 1) to form a border along the edge of; 2) of a country or region: to adjoin (another country or region); 3) (+ on) to be close to a feeling or state; One can make interesting conclusions relying on this fact, that border being the dividing line, can also be the line of connection.

When one turns to the help of etymological dictionary one can learn even more on the sources and origins of the words. Etymologically the word ‘border’ is derived from the Old French ‘bordure’, which means “seam, edge, border”. “The geopolitical sense was first attested in 1535, in Scottish (replacing earlier march), from The Borders, district adjoining the boundary between England and Scotland.”[1]

The term ‘boundary’ appeared later, namely in 1626, and is again derived from old French ‘bodne’, from middle Latin, bodina, butina “boundary, boundary marker”. The author of the dictionary thinks that the meaning could be influenced by middle Latin word ‘bonnarium’ “piece of land within a fixed limit”.[2]

The term ‘march’ seems to be the oldest, c. 1290 derived from old French marche, “boundary, frontier”, from Frankish ‘marka’. In the 14th century there was a title of nobility in France, called Marquis, literally meaning” the ruler of a border area.”[3]

The term ‘Frontier‘, according to Etymology Dictionary goes back to the 1400 year, and is derived from old French, which originally meant the front line of an army. The sense of ‘borderland’ is first attested 1413, in reference to North America, from 1676.[4]

‘Mark’ (German) is another interesting word which means both unit of currency and ‘borderland’ in German, but the latter is obsolete on modern Hochdeutsch. The ancient German towns on frontier bore the word ‘Mark’ in their names, as in Finmark, Daenemark, Ostmark, – hence the English word “mark,” as in, “to mark a boundary.” Furthermore, the French ‘marche’ and Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Catalan, ‘marca’ seem to be derived from the above mentioned German word.[5] Nevertheless, modern German uses a Slavic word ‘die Grenze’ to denote a boundary. Little research about this word shows: ca. 13th century, Middle High German graniz(e), derived from Slavic (Russ. granica, Czech. hranice). The Slavic word was germanized by Martin Luther, as the old term for border ‘Mark’ refers to a border zone, which didn’t fit with modern concept of boundary (Kluge Etymologisches Woerterbuch der deutschen Sprache).

The result is: all the words meaning border, division like boundary frontier, march entered English vocabulary through Old French, dating back to 13th, 15th centuries.

These were linguistic definitions and history of etymology of these terms. When it comes to their usage, they are very often used interchangeably. The word march, marchland is almost obsolete, only very seldom, was I confronted with this term. Widely used terms for outer limits are: frontier, boundary and border.

What we know now, is that among these terms the word frontier is the oldest and has the most military sense, as it used to mean the part of the army or a stronghold on frontier. (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary)

According to Malcolm Anderson (1996:9) “‘Frontier’ is the word with the widest meaning, although its original meaning was military – the zone in which one faced the enemy. In contemporary usage, it can mean the precise line at which jurisdictions meet, usually demarcated and controlled by customs, police and military personnel. ‘Frontier’ can also refer to a region, as in the description of Alsace as the frontier region between France and Germany. In this sense it is the equivalent of the archaic ‘march’. Even more broadly ‘frontier’ is used in specific cases to refer to the moving zone of settlement in the interior of a continent and was used in this sense in Turner’s famous classic, ‘The frontier in American History’.” Prescott suggests that the term ‘frontier’ in political geography can either refer to ‘the political division between two countries or the division between the settled and uninhabited parts of one country’, but in both cases it would have a zonal character. (Prescott 1978:33)

Interestingly, Prescott (1978) doesn’t define the word ‘border’ and rarely uses it in his book. The words he primarily uses are boundary and frontier. He notes that “boundary refers to a line, whereas frontier refers to a zone” (p.32). M. Anderson suggests that the term ‘border’ can define both a line of demarcation and a zone, “in the past, it was the ‘debateable lands’ [in case of English-Scottish border] where, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, neither the law of Scotland nor the law of England was enforced” (Anderson, 1996:9). The word ‘boundary’, he agrees with Prescott, refers “always to the line of delimitation or demarcation and is thus the narrowest of the three terms” (M. Anderson and Bort 1996: 9).

Parker makes an interesting analysis to what the terms for border means and proposes, in his words, a more generalized and widely applicable lexicon (Parker 2006). Unlike Anderson and Prescott, Parker believes boundary to be the most general term. “Boundaries are unspecific divides or separators that indicate limits of various kinds”. (Barth 1969; Cohen; Rosler and Wendl 1999; in Parker 2006) He previously defined borders as “linear dividing lines, fixed in a particular space, meant to mark the division between political and/or administrative units” (Parker 2002; in Parker 2006). Hugh Elton suggests that ‘frontiers are composed of various types of boundaries (zones of variously overlapping political, economic, and cultural boundaries, the very essence of frontiers is this complicated matrix of overlapping boundaries) (Elton 1996b; in Parker 2006). This, Parker believes (2006), makes the concept of the frontier an interesting frame for anthropological research.

Parker in his article goes as far as making the terms border and frontier into antonyms, the former being ‘hard and static’ and the latter – ‘soft and fluid’: “If we follow the Oxford English Dictionary and consider the term boundary to describe all categories of limits or divides – border to be linear, static dividing line and frontier to be a dynamic, fluid zone – two important relationships come into focus. First, borders and frontiers are made up of various types of boundaries (i.e. geographic, political, demographic, cultural, and economic). They are in fact boundary sets. And second, in their most extreme manifestations, borders and frontiers are opposite types of divides – the first, hard static and linear and the second soft, fluid and zonal.” (Parker 2006[6])

[1] The Etymology Dictionary, available at:

[2] The Etymology Dictionary, available at:

[3] The Etymology Dictionary, available at:

[4] The Etymology Dictionary, available at:


[6] URL:



  1. this is really amazing stuff.. i would like to use this with reference on my research project

    • Thank you for your comment Shabee! You are welcome to use this blog for your research, please provide references 🙂

      • yes, i have mentioned the references. thank you!

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