Anglo-Saxon Word of the (every other?) Week: Ymbe

Bee! Photo taken on the grounds of Blarney Castle, Ireland.

Bee! Photo taken on the grounds of Blarney Castle, Ireland.

They say context is everything; this is as true for translation as it is for life. I came across a word last week that, according to four separate dictionaries, could mean either ‘around, about, or upon’ or ‘swarm of bees’. There’s just a wee bit of difference there, and the situation in which I encountered this word contained no bees whatsoever. I wondered why a single word could mean two such seemingly disparate things, so I dug a little deeper.

The word ymbe shows up prominently and two specific contexts – one of which I was dealing with that day (namely, the golden flynet that was hung around Holofernes’ bed), and another which I had to go search for. Wið ymbe is an Anglo-Saxon metrical charm meant to protect one from being attacked by bees. There is a word for bee in Anglo-Saxon – beó – which shows up  both on its own, and in compounds like beó-ceorlas (bee master, or bee keeper) and beówyrt (bee balm). The Wið ymbe charm contains both this word for bee, and the verb ‘two swarm’ – swirman. Ymbe needn’t figure in there at all – but the two contexts in which it’s used in these examples are conceptually related. The golden flynet was hung around Holofernes’ bed, enveloping it, hiding it from prying eyes; it is easy to imagine a swarm of being surrounding a person, enveloping them until the person can’t be seen under the cloud of bees.

Perhaps an alternate translation of the title Wið ymbe might be ‘against enclosure’, or ‘against being surrounded’, but neither of those are specific enough to the context of the charm – enclosed where? Surrounded by what? ‘Against being swarmed’ might be even closer, but still lacks specificity. Compound words for ‘bee swarm’ are documented in Anglo-Saxon (beóswearmfor one), but the focus of the charm isn’t to protect one against an outside thing – a swarm of bees; it’s to protect the speaker from the act of being surround and stung by them. Thus ymbe, though it has nothing to do with bees or swarming, can be argued as being semantically correct.

Incidentally, my favourite word for a big crowd of bees is béogang. Gang is a verb generally meaning ‘journey, progress, or course’, which in the case of bees would be flight – a flight of bees. Like a flight of dragons. Alternatively, albeit inaccurately…bee-gang. They see us flyin’. They hatin’. Buzz, yo.