A word whose obscure origins are at least as intriguing as its definition, burrow seems to be related to forms of the Old English borough, whose original meaning was a stronghold, and bury or berry, words whose roots belong to the notion of “shelter” or sometimes “a hillock,” indicating protection. As a noun, burrow usually refers now to a hole or excavation made in the ground (often a hill or earthen mound) by rabbits and moles, foxes, and other animals and used as their dwelling places. But an early use of the word in English refers to the enclosures that the wintering Roman legions constructed for refuge, rather like modern foxholes, in flat and open fields that did not afford any protection from the elements or from advancing forces. The verb to burrow is often figurative, the imaged noun turned into an active verb suggesting the effort of finding shelter by digging or scratching a hidden space large enough to hold oneself, animal or human. To burrow can mean to seek safe haven from any encroaching danger or discomfort, as Willa Cather describes in her novel My Ántonia: “The burrow sloped into the ground at a gentle angle, so that we could see where the two corridors united, and the floor was dusty from use, like a little highway over which much travel went.”

Patricia Hampl