While chiefly a literary word, dell was once used to describe a small, secluded hollow densely overgrown with trees, vines, and shrubs. As a prop in pastoral verse, poets have idealized it exhaustively, so that there are flowery, sunny, shady, dewy, woody, pleasant, shadowed, placid, and tangled dells. Nevertheless, its root comes from Middle English delle, a deep hole or pit, and Old High German telle, a ravine. Spenser in The Shepherd’s Calendar has an ewe “fall headlong into a dell.” In Ainsworth’s 1783 Latin Dictionary, dell is translated as fossa, which brings to mind Dante’s fossi, the pits and holes (the malebolge) that contain the sinners of his Inferno. If this darker meaning of dell was ever applied, it no longer does. Instead the most familiar context for the word is found in the nursery rhyme “The Farmer in the Dell.”

Michael Collier