Land covered with grasses, or a grassy field, or other discernable area of grassland either mown for hay or used as pasture is known as a meadow. Also, though rarely, the hay that is mown from this area. The term is used either to denote a “natural” (uncultivated) meadow or one planted to enhance the presence of particular flowers or to discourage the invasion of others. This distinction between an uncultivated and cultivated meadow usually depends on the context in which the word is used. Thus, a meadow can be wild or landscaped, but in general a healthy meadow has fifty percent of its surface in some form of grass. (Subalpine meadows, however, are dominated by herbaceous plants.) In North American usage, meadow refers most often, though not exclusively, to a tract of uncultivated grassland, often along a river or in a marshy region, as described by James Galvin in The Meadow: “There is an island on the island which is a meadow, offered up among the ridges, wearing a necklace of waterways, concentrically nested inside the darker green of pines, and then the gray-green of sage and the yellow-green of prairie grass.” Though rare, meadow can mean—chiefly in Newfoundland—an area of sea ice where seals come out of the water in large numbers, thus also seal meadow. Meadow is often a modifier or part of a compound noun, as in meadow flower, meadowlark, meadow mouse. This modifying habit is especially notable in the names of plants, denoting species that thrive in meadows, such as meadow barley, meadow buttercup, meadow campion, meadow clover, and meadow crocus. Sometimes the linkage creates an entirely new and figurative meaning, as in meadow silver, an obsolete term for a cash payment made in lieu of the feudal service of mowing. Meadow thatch is another such term, meaning the coarse grass or rush used for roofing a cottage. There is as well the term salt meadow, which is a grassy area subject to flooding or overflow by salt water. The etymology of meadow is directly related to mead, the alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey and water. And mead, in turn, may have been a noun-form of the adjective meaning “sweet” in many old forms of languages as diverse as Frisian, Dutch, Icelandic, Swedish, Gothic, Sanskrit, Irish, Breton, and Church Slavonic.

Patricia Hampl