Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Láf

Wes þu hál!

Between dissertation deadlines and the illness that just won’t end, this month has rather gotten away from me. But still we must carry on, and next month’s theme won’t wait, so here’s one final female word for November: láf. 

To introduce this word, I’d also like to introduce Elaine, a fellow research student here at Aberystwyth. She’s been working with Old English again recently, and her latest blog uses the word láf to muse on the nature of translation, and how one can use language as a means to flesh out one’s understanding of a society.

widowFor example, Elaine explains that láf is one of the Anglo-Saxon words for widow, but that the word can also mean remnant or remainder. Láf is cognate with the Gothic laiba, the Old Frisian lávathe Old Saxon léƀa, and the Old High German leiba, and does mean that which is left behind, but was regularly applied to widows – that which is left behind after the death of a husband. The woman was referred to as X’s láf, and therefore defined by her relation to her husband. There was no separate word for male widow, such as ‘widower’ in modern English. Head over to Elaine’s blog entry to discuss what the multiple meanings of the word might indicate about the cultural context of widows in the Anglo-Saxon world. For context, you might wish to check out Rolf Bremmer’s Between Poverty and the Pyre: Widows in Anglo-Saxon England, or this site explaining early English laws.

The word was used in several other descriptive ways besides simply indicating that something was left over or left behind. The weapons’ or battle’s leavings were survivors of a conflict. In poetry, weaponry was sometimes described as láf fýres and feóle – the leaving of fire and of file.

Láf is an interesting word etymologically. The stem leibh or leip (from which láf comes), traced backwards through Indo-European and Proto-Indo-European, was a verb meaning to smear fat, or stick. We’ve already seen a few of the Germanic cognates of láf, which carried similar meanings, but the Greek lipos retained the meaning of fat, and the Homeric Greek verb from the same root meant to smear or anoint. Somewhere during the development away from Indo-European, the Germanic words underwent a change of meaning that the Greek word did not. Unpacking what happened in that shift of meaning could also be an investigation of the different cultural contexts acting upon each language.

Another common word for widow in Anglo-Saxon was widuwe, which comes from the Indo-European root ueidh, meaning to divide or separate. Also, recall our discussion of wif, meaning woman who is not a virgin? Sometimes wif was also used to indicate a widow.