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15th June 2012

Arboriculturist or Arboriculturalist?

The practice of arboriculture is ancient. The image above shows it was a subject worthy of being painted about on ancient Egyptian tomb walls, clearly showing people transplanting and caring for trees. The word arboriculture is also old; derived from the Latin arbor (tree), and cultura (tending or caring). Today the terms “Arboriculturist” and “Arboriculturalist” are both used to describe a person who practices professional arboriculture – but which one is the right word?


Arboriculture was a term apparently well used in the 18th century. The Scottish author John Grigor seems to have been the first to publish the word in his book –Arboriculture (1868). Indeed, the RFS Royal Forestry Societies were originally known as arboricultural societies, the Royal Scottish Arboricultural Society was founded in 1854 and the English Royal Arboricultural Society was founded in 1882. It wasn’t until 1931 that the Royal English Arboricultural Society changed its name to Royal English Forestry Society. It was in the early 1930s that the use of the term arboriculture became distinct from forestry or silviculture – as tree care when the focus is amenity and the primary objective is not that of timber production.

In English grammar the suffix ‘ist’ is added to words to form nouns denoting a member of a profession or one interested in something. In the same way a person who practices biology is a biologist and one who practices ecology is an ecologist, to describe a person who practices arboriculture an ‘ist’ was added and they became known as an ‘arboriculturist’, and to describe things related to arboriculture the adjective was therefore ‘arboricultural’.
In America, as was the trend around this time, the word was simplified to ‘arborist’. However, (although it drips off the tongue a little easier) arborist makes less grammatical sense. In much the same way as we don’t not refer to a ‘biolist’ or ‘ecolist’. Furthermore, the term arborist quickly became synonymous with the role of tree surgeon, the person who undertakes the physical work of climbing and pruning or felling trees. As such, the term arboriculturist continued to be used to describe those who practice professional arboriculture.
Curiously, in the UK spelling, an additional suffix started to appear and arboriculturist became arboricultur’al’ist. Although you can add various derivational suffixes on to most English words to create new longer words, including ‘ist’ and ‘al’, the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language suggests, it would be rare to have more than one derivational suffixes. So quite why and when the additional ‘al’ introduced itself into the term is unknown. It’s popularity may well have sprung from the late, great, N. D. G. James who in 1972 released The Arboriculturalist’s Companion: A Guide to the Care of Trees. N.D.G. James was president of the Royal Forestry Society and a major force for increasing the importance of arboriculture in the UK; in the 60’s he pioneered the first examinations in arboriculture, the RFS diploma.  N.D.G. James clearly knew his stuff and was rightly well respected, yet it’s unclear quite why he chose to add the extra ‘al’ when publishing the ‘Arboriculturalist’s Companion’. Due to his authority within the industry, following this book, the use of the term arboriculturalist over arboriculturist seemingly became the preferred spelling amongst many in the UK and we now have both terms being used interchangeably.


Stemming from this confusion, many within the profession now scrupulously avoid using either of the words at all. Looking at the Arboricultural Association web pages I can find little or no reference to an arboriculturist. Similarly, the newly created Consulting Arborists Society seems to have side stepped both the termsBut does it matter? Should you keep on using whichever version of the word you prefer? Arbs, Arborist, Arboriculturist, Arboriculturalist…how about Arboriculturalisticarianizationalizer?!
The practice of arboriculture may be ancient but as a profession we are relatively new and are struggling to be perceived as ‘professional’. If we can’t be clear and consistent on how to spell what we practice what hope is there of being seen as a legitimate profession?
To clarify; the Oxford English Dictionary has the noun of arboriculture as ‘arboriculturist‘; likewise the Collins pocket dictionary refers to ‘arboriculturist’ (they don’t list ‘Arboriculturalist’).
Leading authorities within the industry are now clear: The Terms and Definitions of the British Standard 5837:2012 refer to an arboriculturist (as a person who has, through relevant education, training and experience, gained expertise in the field of trees in relation to construction). By law, a Professional Member of the Institute of Chartered Foresters may describe him or herself as a Chartered Forester or Chartered Arboriculturist. 


It is true that what we ‘do’ is more important than what we call ourselves and admittedly ‘Arboriculturist’ is a bit of a mouthful; but you don’t see an ethnobotanist shying away from their title. There is enough authority now to say arboriculturalist is misspelt and those who continue using the superfluous suffix “al” will increasingly feel abashed. Language evolves just like everything else and the terms which are retained over time are “naturally selected”. If the slang ‘arbs’ or ‘arborists’ proves a more effective word to the concept of an arboriculturist in any given conversation then that’s all well and good. Yet it will be more difficult to move towards professionalism without an agreed upon convention of the term

Arbolist… look up the word. I don’t know; Maybe I made it up. Anyway, it’s an arbo-tree-ist, somebody who knows about trees. (George W. Bush, August 21, 2001).
Adam Winson, Tree Consultant 
I'm a Chartered Arboriculturist at AWA Tree Consultants Ltd. As well as detailing our recent tree survey and arboricultural consultant work, this blog includes wide ranging arboricultural musings, including tree facts, opinion and anecdotes on trees in human culture.

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