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?





Grammar revolution?


LONDON (Reuters) – About 16,000 words have succumbed to pressures of the Internet age and lost their hyphens in a new edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

Bumble-bee is now bumblebee, ice-cream is ice cream and pot-belly is pot belly. And if you’ve got a problem, don’t be such a crybaby (formerly cry-baby).

The hyphen has been squeezed as informal ways of communicating, honed in text messages and emails, spread on Web sites and seep into newspapers and books.

“People are not confident about using hyphens anymore, they’re not really sure what they are for,” said Angus Stevenson, editor of the Shorter OED, the sixth edition of which was published this week.

Another factor in the hyphen’s demise is designers’ distaste for its ungainly horizontal bulk between words.

“Printed writing is very much design-led these days in adverts and Web sites, and people feel that hyphens mess up the look of a nice bit of typography,” he said. “The hyphen is seen as messy looking and old-fashioned The team that compiled the Shorter OED, a two-volume tome despite its name, only committed the grammatical amputations after exhaustive research.

“The whole process of changing the spelling of words in the dictionary is all based on our analysis of evidence of language, it’s not just what we think looks better,” Stevenson said.

Researchers examined a corpus of more than 2 billion words, consisting of full sentences that appeared in newspapers, books, Web sites and blogs from 2000 onwards. (side note: word researcher? I want this job. How, oh how, do I get this job?)

For the most part, the dictionary dropped hyphens from compound nouns, which were unified in a single word (e.g. pigeonhole) or split into two (e.g. test tube).

But hyphens have not lost their place altogether. The Shorter OED editor commended their first-rate service rendered to English in the form of compound adjectives, much like the one in the middle of this sentence.

“There are places where a hyphen is necessary,” Stevenson said. “Because you can certainly start to get real ambiguity.”

Twenty-odd people came to the party, he said. Or was it twenty odd people?

Some of the 16,000 hyphenation changes in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, sixth edition:

Formerly hyphenated words split in two:

fig leaf

hobby horse

ice cream

pin money

pot belly

test tube

water bed

Formerly hyphenated words unified in one:










Grammatic Humour



Taken from:
A N  O P E N  L E T T E R
T O  U M L A U T .

October 13, 2003

Dear Umlaut,

You think you’re so damn cool, huh? Just hanging out, chillin’, above all those vowels. You’re all, “Ooh, look at me, I’m a chic umlaut. I make girls’ names look modish, like Zoë and Chloë, and I rock with strung out ’80s metal bands!”

Well, guess what? You’re only an umlaut if you’re modifying the pronunciation of a singular vowel, like in “Führer” or “über.” If you’re stressing the second of two consecutive vowels or one that would usually be silent according to common English usage, you’re just a plain old boring dieresis. How ’bout that, you naïve jackass? God, you’re such a poseur, umlaut. You’re nothing but two measly dots. You’re a Eurotrash colon lying down. Nobody thinks you’re cool.

Josh Abraham
Kew Gardens, NY