On Twitter, sharp-eyed reader Jan Freeman noted the following caption from the New York Times “T” design magazine: “Kime with secateurs, looking for branches to display in the house.”

I have to admit, I had no idea what that meant, until I went to the article and then the dictionary. “Kime” is Robert Kime, a British interior designer, and “secateurs” is the British term for what Americans call pruning shears. (The picture shows Kime in the countryside near his vacation home in the Lake District, you got it, looking for branches.)

The author of the article is Rhoda Konig, who I happen to know is an American who has lived in London for years, but writers don’t write captions. The only acceptable excuse for the Times to have used “secateurs” rather than “pruning shears” is a kind of lexical ventriloquism (using the sorts of words your subject would use), but even that’s not much of an excuse.

I looked up “secateurs” in the Times’ index, and it turns out that, since 1851, the paper has used it about a dozen times. All but a couple were from the pen of longtime garden writer Anne Raver, who is from Maryland.

24 thoughts on ““Secateurs”

  1. I’m a Florida garden blogger who began following many English cottage garden bloggers several years ago. They were always “grabbing secateurs” which meant absolutely NOTHING to me until I looked it up. Definately an uncommon term in America, even among those who use them all the time!

    1. My wife’s father… I hate to remind people of the word bonk here.. But that is how it turned out..was a very keen gardener in Scotland and he had several pairs of secatuers… Yes…plural. I am about to look up the word. I was always terrified to ask him why he called them that as it seemed perfectly evident to him.

  2. Hmmm…I grew up in New York in the 1950s and we always called them secateurs. Note the small size and one-handed operation. “Pruning shears” were larger and long-handled and required two hands to operate. We definitely did not read the Times; I wonder what the Daily News (and later Newsday) called them. My grandmother was born in Glasgow; maybe that’s where it came from?

  3. Pruning shears are _large_. Secateurs are small, a bit bigger than a pair of standard scissors. They’re used for more than just pruning – how else do you cut your flowers?

    BTW – I’m fifth-generation Australian. We love our secateurs, and are fully aware of how silly they sound 🙂

      1. Not sure they had courgettes in 1066, Ben, and certainly not aubergines, which came from the New World. Those two words probably came to us courtesy of Elizabeth David’s cookery books in the 1950s – the likes of French Country Cooking and Italian Cookery. I would be prepared to bet that serviette and secateurs are from the earlier encroachment.

      2. When I grew up in Melbourne in the 60s and 70s we certainly used serviettes, but I never, ever saw a courgette or an aubergine. Plenty of zucchinis and the occasional eggplant, though 😉

  4. Btw, I use “loppers” only for the pruning shears on a long extendable pole. Otherwise, shears (for grass etc) and secateurs for pruning. What do other gardeners (yardeners?) say?

  5. French was de rigeur as english was only used by the commoners.French was for royalty and the lords as part of france at the time after hastings belonged to england hence brittany .secateurs are one handed operation, garden shears are for lawns hedges etc.

  6. Brittany was so named, after it was settled by Britons fleeing Saxons, in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. Before that it was Armorica (‘the seaside’ in Gaulish).

    1. No doubt the Britons discovered, on arriving at “the seaside”, that the Saxons had spread their towels to reserve the best places.

  7. Here in the UK we use all three terms – loppers, shears and secateurs – to denote specific tools in descending order of size. So I suppose the question is: do Americans differentiate verbally between shears ( wielded with both hands, about 2′ long, with long blades) and what we would call secateurs (one-handed, about 7″ long, with short blades), and if so, what do they call secateurs?

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