Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Elephant!

elephant-drawing-717The theme of animals continues this week with elephant – one of the request words I received via Facebook. Incidentally, this request came with a second word, which doesn’t exist properly in Anglo-Saxon, but did allow me to have a bit of fun putting this week’s entry together. More on that in a bit.

Ælfric discussed elephants in his homily on the Maccabees, but he knew none of his audience had ever seen one – nor, likely, had he himself. To make up for this, he relied on descriptions found in the Etymologiaea 7th century text written by St. Isidore, a Christian bishop who compiled a vast array of knowledge from classical source that he felt worth keeping into a single volume. The Etymologiae covered everything from grammar and rhetoric to nature, law, and religion – and included, fortunately for Ælfric, several handy descriptions of elephants. He doesn’t include all of the details he finds, however; Ælfric described of the elephant as:

“an immense animal greater than a house, all encased with bones within the hide except at the navel, and it never lies down. The mother goes twenty-four months with foal, and they live three hundred years if they are not injured, and man can raise them wonderfully for war.”

(translations of the original by E.J. Christie, The Idea of the Elephant: Ælfric of Eynsham,                                                               Epistemology, and the Absent Animals of Anglo-Saxon England)


…but he leaves out the folklore elements that St. Isidore covers, such as the elephants’ famously exceptional capacity for memory, or their fear of mice.

The word Ælfric used for elephant — elp or ylp — was borrowed from the Latin elephantus. 


Companions_adelie_penguinsThe accompanying word in this request was penguin – another animal which most speakers of Old English would never have seen, and indeed an animal for which there is no word. However, in verifying this, I became interested in the etymology of penguin, and saw an opportunity to play around a bit. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest mentions of the word attest to Welsh origins, and break the word down to pen gwyn, or white head. In Welsh, pen can refer to the head sitting on someone’s shoulders, or to a headland – a hill that extends out into a body of water. Anglo-Saxon has a similar word: héafod. As you might imagine, this one comes up an awful lot in Judith, but it can refer equally to head as a body part and head as a landform. Hwíte is the Anglo-Saxon (and, incidentally, Old Frisian, Anglo-Saxon’s closest relative) word for white. Unlike Welsh, nouns do not precede adjectives, syntactically in Anglo-Saxon. Therefore, if we wanted to construct a nominative singular translation of penguin in Anglo-Saxon, I think we could do a lot worse than hwítehéafod. It’s even pleasingly alliterative. 🙂

Last week, we discussed some kennings for ravens and eagles, as beasts of battle. Then penguin is a flightless bird; one way of describing them poetically might be na-flyge flugel, or ‘no-flight bird’. What other ways would you describe penguins?





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