Wood vs. Wooden

By Maeve Maddox

Some adjectives with two forms often create doubt in native speakers.

Take for example these uses of the words wood and wooden:

You’ll want to budget about $4/square foot for a wood deck…

Building a wooden deck over a concrete one

68 Wooden Deck Design Ideas

Expansive wood deck with low wood railing using diagonal wood floor design

Which is correct? “Wood deck” or “wooden deck?”

Strictly speaking, wood is a noun and wooden is an adjective, as illustrated in this headline:

Wood science and how it relates to wooden baseball bats

In this example, wood functions as a noun: “the science of wood”; wooden functions as an adjective: “bats made of wood.”

But although this “rule” of distinguishing between noun and adjective can be applied to wood and wooden–and possibly to wool and woolen–most of the -en adjectives that describe substances have become relegated to the realm of poetic or figurative language.

The following examples show how the -en adjective forms were used in their older, literal senses:

ash: ashen
“The city had been one mass of color…One great crumbling mass of ashen ruins was what we found left of all this.”

brass: brazen
“It grew dark, and they put candles on the tables–candles set in bright, new, brazen candlesticks.”

flax: flaxen
“…the early-modern hemp industry was far more versatile than has been supposed and was capable of producing not only ropes and canvas, but also hempen cloth some of which could rival all but the finest flaxen cloth.”

gold: golden
“Three compartments divided the coffer. In the first, blazed piles of golden coin; in the second, were ranged bars of unpolished gold.”

lead: leaden
“The water was formerly conveyed by wooden pipes from these basins through all the streets, and a leaden pipe, inserted in the main, supplied each house.”

oak: oaken
“Pine lids were not put on oaken chests in England at this early period.”

silk: silken
“From an anecdote of Aurelian, who neither used silk himself nor would allow his wife to possess a single silken garment, we learn that silk was worth its weight in gold.”

wax: waxen
“One of the wedding presents had been a pair of beautiful white waxen candles.”

In modern usage, the noun in each of these pairs serves also as an adjective. For example, brass for brazen and flax for flaxen:

…these tarnished brass candlesticks looked better suited to a flea-market stall than a dining table. 

It was sometimes said that the flax rope was apt to break when a knot was made in the rope.

The -en forms do survive in figurative contexts. Here are just a few:

She’s a brazen woman and no mistake! (impudent)

“They’ve caught us trespassing; we’ll have to brazen it out. (face the situation impudently)

The dead man’s face had a waxen hue. (appearance of wax)

The girl had laughing blue eyes and flaxen hair. (any light shade of auburn or pale yellowish brown)

Keep an eye out for other examples of these -en adjectives in modern English.

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8 Responses to “Wood vs. Wooden”

  • ApK

    Funny, the usual conversation I hear about “gold” and “golden” is about how to distinguish the color from the material. That is, you might have a gold coin (made of the metal) but have golden hair (the color of the metal).
    It never occurred to me to research it.

  • Curtis

    Some of those ‘-en’ terms really do have an old feeling to them.

    Concerning the use of brass/brazen, I may be wrong, but I tend to think of brazen as a term describing how something was fabricated; the process is brazing. A parallel term for the use of gold is gilding, though brazing is joinery, where gilding is decoration.

    Of course, we still have brazen as a personality trait (not usually complimentary).

  • venqax

    Figurative uses aside, I have always assumed -en words, e.g. wooden, golden, were solely adjectives that meant made of gold, or made of wood respectively. I would put “golden haired” in figurative class: Nothing to do directly with the hair’s color, per se, but saying it looks like it is made of gold. At the same time, I know gold and wood can be used as adjectives, too. Nouns are often used as adjectives and I’ll bet there is a name for that (Maeve, help!). So, for the e.g. list:

    The golden haired girl did this. [figurative. the girl has hair that looks like the metal gold. Probably yellow-colored as a plus]

    The gold statue is impressive. [ambiguous. could be a statue made out of gold, not necessarily even gold-colored; OR a statue that is gold in color, made of who knows what.]

    The golden statue is very impressive . [now the statue is clearly made of gold. That’s better!]

    McDonald’s had golden arches through its buildings. [figurative. The arches were yellow and plastic. Neither gold nor golden, really.]

    Gilded is a bit different. If something is gilded it is covered, or adorned with gold, but is not itself made of gold (golden.) As in “don’t gild the lily”.

    My gold coin is actually just gilded, it is not pure gold (or it is not golden, it is gilded).

  • Andy Knoedler

    Your list made me think of the relationship between “glass” and “glazed.” I know this pair are not exactly in the same category as those in your list because the adjective form does not end in -en. Nonetheless, I find them interesting.

    “To glaze” is to install glass in a window. The adjective “glazed” means having glass in the window. The figurative use is obvious: a glazed look can also be called a glassy expression.

    But the interesting aspect of “glaze” for me is its continuing use in Britain to describe the physical act of glass installation. A glazier is a glass installer; double glazing is a method of installing cold dwellings by using two layers of glass.

  • venqax

    In the US it is probably not common to refer to a glass installer as a glazer, as opposed to a glass installer. But it is common to refer to double-glazed doors or windows, meaning 2 panes of glass with some kind of trapped gas in between (don’t remember what it is).

  • Jimmy

    Consider: wood lodge x wooden lodge. “Wood” as an adjective should imply here being in a wood and “wooden” as being made of wood.

    However, in many cases they seem to be used interchangeably when implying that something is made of wood. They do not seem to be particularly confusing there. I guess this just shows that users generally tend to simplify their native language. However incorrect this may at first be, it probably just shows that every language is an evolving organism.

  • Eli

    I came here to find out what was going on, why “wooden” seems to be disappearing. People speak of wood dolls, wood handles, etc., meaning “made of wood” and it irks me to no end. A wood shed, is to me, a place for storing wood, usually logs to burn. A wooden shed, on the other hand, is a shed of any purpose made of wood.

    The fact that the other -en adjectives have fallen out of use bothers me much less. Probably because the materials in question, flax, lead, brass or even oak, are less common in our environments. Most everything is made of plastic or resin, ceramic, metal, glass, concrete or unrecognizable forms of wood. I didn’t even know that “oaken” and “waxen” were words or that “brazen” referred to anything other than a brash manner. As for “flaxen” and “silken”, I’ve never seen them modify anything but hair and they sound poeticky not poetic. “Ashen” is another case, for me, not associated with any particular noun and it doesn’t strike me as precious, though I’m not sure I’d ever use it.

    “Golden” I use, like another commenter, as a color adjective, interchangeably with gold-colored.

    I regret the loss of “wooden” and believe I will say “wooden box” and “wooden bead” and “wooden house” ’till the day I die. I also use “woolens” in the plural for the wool garments I possess. And I am wondering what the case of “linen” is. Was there ever a noun, “lin”, for which “linen” was the adjective?

  • Maeve

    Eli,
    Yes, “linen” began as an adjective. The OED shows an example of “lin” as a noun in an Old English citation. The French word for “linen” is “lin,” from Latin “linum.” The more common spelling in English for the noun was “line” or “lyne,” from which came the adjective “linen.”
    Enjoyed your comment.

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