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?





Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: orðanc

This version of the book cover was taken from Tolkein's illustrations of Orthanc and Minas Morgul.

This version of the book cover was taken from Tolkien’s illustrations of Orthanc and Minas Morgul.

This week’s word is brought to you by sheer whimsy – it’s my birthday later this week, so I’ve exercised a bit of blogger’s privilege and chosen something fun!

Orðanc, in the Anglo-Saxon, is a strong, masculine noun (at least in grammatical terms!) meaning skill, cleverness, or work that is skilfully done. Strong and masculine describe the noun’s pattern of declension — or, how the noun indicates number, case, and gender. This is how a regular st. m. noun declines in Anglo-Saxon:

Singular        Plural

nominative (subject)       orþanc        orþancas
accusative (object)         orþanc        orþancas
genitive*                         orþances     orþanca
dative   (direct object)    orþance      orþancum





Orðanc could also be used as an adjective to mean ‘skillful’ or ‘cunning’. Is there any better name, then, for Tolkien’s tower at Isengard? Orthanc was the fortified tower built by the Dúnedain and inhabited for many years by the white wizard Saruman, and arguably one of the titular towers featured in the second book of his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien himself has been noted as saying that the word derived either from “Mount Fang” in Sindarin, or from “cunning mind” in Rohirric, two of the languages Tolkien created for his Middle Earth. Rohirric, which Tolkien envisioned as a distant relative of Westron, the common tongue of Middle Earth, is represented by the Mercian dialect of Anglo-Saxon in the novels. 


*Put simply, the genitive case, also called the possessive case, describes a noun that modifies another noun, as in: “That is Rachel’s book.”

Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Byrnwiggende

We're uncertain what a byrnie looked like, but it could have been a mail shirt, or mail-covered leather jacket.

We’re uncertain what a byrnie looked like, but it could have been a mail shirt, or mail-covered leather jacket.

Wes þu hal!

Finally getting back to some text translation today, after time away for travel, conferences, and end-of-term marking frenzies – and I discovered a neat thing I wanted to share. I came across the word byrnwiggende today. A wiggend is a warrior or soldier, and the word is commonly seen in descriptive compounds – rondwiggende, for example. Rond or rand is technically the margin or the edge of something, but it was usually used to denote the edge of a shield – so rondwiggende might get translated as sheild-warrior or shield-bearer.

All of that I knew – but what on earth was a byrn? The Clark Hall dictionary gave me corselet, and that’s a familiar enough armour term, but I didn’t really like the word. I tried the online Englisc Onstigende Wordbōc, to see if it would give me anything different – and it gave me the Modern English word byrnie – at least, they said it was Modern English. I’d certainly never heard of it, so I threw it into google, and out popped the image on the left – something I would indeed have termed a corselet. Or maybe even just a maille shirt. According to Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World (Bennet, M., et al): 

There is some dispute among historians as to what exactly constituted the Carolingian byrnie. Relying… only on artistic and some literary sources because of the lack of archaeological examples, some believe that it was a heavy leather jacket with metal scales sewn onto it. It was also quite long, reaching below the hips and covering most of the arms. Other historians claim instead that the Carolingian byrnie was nothing more than a coat of mail, but longer and perhaps heavier than traditional early medieval mail. Without more certain evidence, this dispute will continue.

A section of the Bayeux Tapestry - could those soldiers have been wearing byrnies?

A section of the Bayeux Tapestry – could those soldiers have been wearing byrnies?

There you are, then; a new word for me in both languages. Call them shield-bearers, mail-wearers, or men-at-arms – a good leader was lost without good soldiers.

brain play

I have a headache. Any suggestions on how to get rid of it? 


Also, I had a really odd dream last night, when I finally managed to get to sleep. I say ‘odd’ because that sort of dream is pretty uncommon for me (although this time it’s easily understood), and the person my brain selected was so completely random.

And yet it wasn’t. I listened to Phantom of the Opera on my way to and from work yesterday, and passed by Blair on the way to my car. And from those two dissociated facts, my brain supplied itself with associated details. Fascinating. Neurolgy experts say that dreams are the way your brain reviews what happened to you during the day and processes all that information – that the brain waves you use during the day are repeated, after a fashion at night. But you can’t relive your entire day in just a few hours…maybe this is why the brain makes dreams, to consolidate all those disparate facts into one congealed reality?

Or maybe the brain just likes to entertain itself.

I vant to suck your blood…

Pardon me whilst I geek out for a moment, I just found the coolest thing:

It’s a community posting the Dracula novel in realtime.

From the community info:
Dracula is an epistolary novel (meaning that it’s written as a series of documents; usually letters, here everything from letters to diary entries to newspaper clippings). On this community, they’ll be appearing on the day they’re dated, starting with Jonathan Harker’s first journal entry on the 3rd of May. The novel finishes in November, so we’ve got about six months.

The only differnce between this and the novel is that they are not posting the letters as they appear in the book; rather they are sticking to strict chronoglogical format.