‘How Are You?’ in Old English

‘How Are You? in Old English

How did the Anglo-Saxons ask about someone’s health? To answer this question fully, it would be helpful to consider first what the Anglo-Saxons would not have said in this context, based at least on the corpus of extant OE writing. The expression hū færst þū? did not mean ‘how are you?,’ as is sometimes claimed by “internetistas,” but rather (and idiomatically) ‘what is your journey? where are you going?’ vel sim. (DOE: hu I.A.1.a.iv. and III.A.1.b.ii):

Hie ascodon hine hwæt he wære oððe hu he faran wolde. He cwæð þæt he wære Godes þeow, se þe gescop sæ and land, and þæt he fleon wolde of Godes gesihðe (ÆCHom I, 18 318.22) ‘they asked him who he [Jonah] was and where he was going. He said that he was a servant of God, of Him who had created sea and land, and that he wished to flee before the face of God.’
Hagar, Saries þinen, hu færst þu oððe hwider wilt þu? (Gen 16.8) ‘Hagar, handmaiden of Sarai, whence have you come and whither do wish to go? (unde venis et quo vadis?).

And ic fare wel did not mean ‘I am well, I am in good health,’ but rather ‘I am doing well, I am succeeding, I am getting on,’ vel sim. (DOE: faran IV).

Likewise there is no evidence that hū gǣð hit? (lit. ‘how goes it?’) was ever used, like the corresponding ModE expression how goes it?, to mean ‘how are you?.’ Like Mod. German wie geht’s? and Mod. Dutch hoe gaat het?, our how goes it? appears to be modeled on the French expression comment ça va? (lit. ‘how goes it?’). The OE hū gǣð hit? means simply ‘how does it walk / go / move / proceed?’ etc. Rather similar to faran, gān could also be used at times to refer to a favourable outcome: him ēode wel on hand (lit. ‘for him it went well in hand’) ‘it went favourably for him’ (DOE: gān I.3.c.ii.a.).

And one might also mention here the archaic expression how dost thou?, but this is extant beginning only in the fifteenth century (OED: do 19.B.II.19), and thus there is no evidence for an OE *hū dēst þū? = ‘how are you?’ (DOE: dōn).

And so what did the Anglo-Saxons actually say here? One attested way of asking about someone’s health was to utter hū meaht þū? – or Late West Saxon hū miht þū? – (second-person singular), which implies also hū magon gē? (second-person plural), hū mæg hē / hēo / hit? (third-person singular), etc. The verb magan (> ModE may), which is found in these questions, commonly corresponds to ModE ‘can, to be able to,’ but could also be used intransitively to mean ‘to be strong, be efficacious, avail, prevail, be sufficient,’ or, as here, ‘to be strong, be in good health.’ And so the question means literally ‘how are you prevailing?’ vel sim. The corresponding response would have included the adverbs wel / tela (‘well’) or presumably yfele (‘ill’):

Hu mæg he?” Hie cwædon þæt he wel mihte (Gen 29.6) ‘“How is he?” They said that he was well’ (“Sanusne est?” “Valet,” inquiunt).
Þa sægde se cnapa þæt he swiðe wel mihte (ÆLS (Basil) 435) ‘then said the boy that he was very well.’
And me getrymedest þæt ic tela mihte (PPs 70.20) ‘and you fortified me so that I was well.’

The use of the equivalent of OE magan to ask about someone’s health is also found elsewhere in Germanic and may well have been a Proto-Germanic legacy (click here).

A further attested option in asking about someone’s health was hū eart þū? (second-person singular), which implies hū sind gē? (second-person plural), hū is hē / hēo / hit? (third-person sing.), etc. This is then identical in construction to ModE how are you?:

Hwæt is þe, broðor? Hu eart þu nu? (GD 4 (C) 57.345.35) ‘What’s the matter, brother? How are you now?’ (cf. GREG.MAG. Dial. 4.57.15 quomodo es?).

This construction could be used to inquire into a condition or state more broadly, thus hū wæs hit? ‘how did things stand? what was the state of things?,’ vel sim. (DOE: hū I.A.3.a).

The spelling in all of the OE examples above has been normalized.

“What’s the Matter with You?” in the Early Germanic Languages

“What’s the Matter with You?”
in the Early Germanic Languages

All too often, students of ancient languages have little exposure to (idiomatic) expressions of a more workaday nature, expressions such as “to go to the privy” or “to have sex with,” or questions like “what’s the matter with you?” This is all the more so with the early Germanic languages, given their smaller corpora, compared to, say, Latin or Ancient Greek, and given the absence of bilingual dictionaries which have Modern English as the starting point. The equivalents of the first two expressions I have dealt with elsewhere (here and here). But how did one say “what’s the matter (with you)?” in the Early Germanic languages?

In Old English, one could say hwæt is þē? (sg.) / hwæt is ēow? (pl.), lit. ‘what is [it] with-you?’ (DOE, hwa I.E.1). (And, of course, the expression “what is it?” can still be used to mean “what’s the matter?” in Modern English. The expression with matter, by the way, dates back only to the fifteenth century.) Speakers of Old Norse could use the very same construction: hvat er þér? (sg.) / hvat er yðr? (pl.), lit. ‘what is [it] with-you?’ (Cleasby, vera B.2). I have not been able to find the equivalent in Old Saxon or Old High German, but the expression was ist mit dir? (lit. ‘what is with you?’) ‘what is the matter (with you)?’ exists in modern German. To my knowledge, the Gothic equivalent is not extant, but in light of the foregoing agreement in idiom, which may have been a Proto-Germanic inheritance, one might expect the Gothic counterpart to have been *hwa ist þus? (sg.) / *hwa ist izwis? (pl.).


Cleasby, R. & G. Vigfusson. 1962. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. OUP.
DOE = The Dictionary of Old English: A to H. 2016. University of Toronto.

A Bit of Self-Promotion

If you have an interest in the Gothic language and a predilection for Medieval(esque) music, check out the recent recording of my song “Baris Standiþ” (‘The Barley Stands’), performed by Donna Greenberg. You can listen to it here (and download it here).


Or if writing in “Anglish” is your thing (i.e., a “constructed’ form of English using words of Germanic origin), you may be interested in Outlaws, a satiric literary novel in a picaresque vein, written almost entirely in words of Germanic origin (unlike this blurb), with a fair number of coinages. (Buy it here (Canada), here (USA), or here (UK)).

‘Hi’ and ‘Bye’ in Old English

‘Hi’ and ‘Bye’ in Old English

How did one greet a person in Old English? The equivalent of the expression good day (as well as good morning, good afternoon, etc.) is not found in the Old English corpus and almost certainly never existed. This greeting appears to have been modelled on the Medieval French counterpart and is not attested in English until the early fifteenth century according to the OED, a century after its first attestation in French. And so a *gōdne dæg, etc. was not an option (even though one repeatedly comes across this invented phrase on websites and in less scholarly handbooks purporting to instruct the reader in how to speak OE). Likewise, the expressions farewell and good-bye are later innovations, the former attested only from the fourteenth century, and the latter from the sixteenth century (a corruption of God be with you). At the figurative level, OE faran wel meant mainly ‘to get on, to do well, to fare well.’ A look into the Dictionary of Old English reveals, moreover, that the interjections ēalā and hig were not used to mean ‘hello,’ as is sometimes claimed again in less scholarly sources.


The all-purpose greeting in OE uttered upon meeting consisted of the imperative (or subjunctive) form of the verb ‘to be’ + an adjective meaning ‘whole, healthy, safe.’ Thus, the expression was literally ‘be whole / healthy / safe.’ And so it is that Ælfric in his Grammar glosses the Latin greetings ave / salve (singular) with bēo gesund (‘be healthy / safe’), and avete / salvete (plural) with bēoð gesunde. Instead of gesund (> ModE sound), one could also use the adjective hāl (> ModE whole), both largely synonymous, thus, bēo hāl (sg.) and bēoð hāle (pl.). In the non-West Saxon dialects — or rather, in texts that are thought to reflect non-West Saxon usage — the verbal forms wes (sg.) / wesað (pl.) are mainly preferred, thus, wes hāl (sg.) and wesað hāle (pl.). Indeed, the forms wes / wesað do not appear to have been used in late West Saxon generally (Hogg & Fulk 2011: §6.149). If a subjunctive form is used, then one would have sīe / bēo hāl (sg.), for example. As with imperatives broadly, a subject personal pronoun could also be used here, presumably to stress the addressee, and was typically placed directly after the imperative verb, e.g., bēo þū gesund (lit. ‘you (sg.) be healthy / safe!’). And in the plural, the forms wesað and bēoð may be reduced to wese and bēo respectively when immediately before a subject pronoun, e.g., wese gē hāle. Here a few examples drawn directly from the corpus showing some permutations:

‘Aue’ and ‘salue’ habbað imperativum, and hie sind gretingword: ‘aue’ oððe ‘salue’ (‘beo gesund’) et pluraliter ‘aue, saluete’ (‘beoð gesunde) (ÆGram 209.14) ‘ave and salve are imperatives, and they are salutations: ave or salve (‘greetings!’), and in the plural avete, salvete (‘greetings!’).’
Beo þu gesund! (ÆCHom I.13.194.23) ‘greetings to you!’
Eode þa into þæm cyninge and cwæð, “wes gesund, cyning!” (ApT 4.6) ‘then went to the king and said, ‘greetings, king!’
Sie þu hal, leof! (ÆCHom II. ‘Greetings to you, Sire!’
Wes þu, Hroðgar, hal! (Beo 407), ‘greetings to you, Hroðgar!’
Hal wes þu, Iudea cyning! (Mt(WSCp) 27.30), ‘greetings to you, King of the Jews!’

When greeting someone in a letter or the like, one would typically use the verb grētan (‘to greet’), or such expressions as sendan grētan (‘to send (someone) greetings’), hātan grētan (‘to bid (someone) be greeted’), or grētan (mid) Godes grētinge (‘to greet (someone) with God’s greeting / blessing’):

Þa awrat Gregorius þis gewrit to þæm gode: “ic grete þe, Apollo! …” (ÆHom 22.615) ‘then Gregory wrote this to the god: “I greet you, Apollo! …”’
Ælfric grett eaðmodlice Æðelweard ealdormann, and ic secge þe, leof, þæt ic … (ÆLS (Pref) 1) ‘Ælfric humbly greets alderman Æðelweard, and I say to you, sir, that I …’
Ic Beda, Cristes þeow and mæssepreost, sende gretan þone leofostan cyning Ceolwulf (BedePref 2.1) ‘I Bede, Christ’s servant and mass-priest, send greetings to Ceolwulf, the dearest king.’
Ælfred cyning hateð gretan Wærferð biscop his wordum luflice and freondlice (CPLetWærf 1) ‘King Alfred bids Bishop Wærferð be greeted with his words in a loving and friendly manner.’
Ic Ælfric abbod on þissum engliscum gewrite freondlice grete mid Godes gretinge Wulfgeat æt Ylmandune (ÆLet 6.1) ‘I abbot Ælfric, in this letter written in English, greet with friendliness and God’s blessing Wulfgeat of Ilmington.’


And what did one say upon leave-taking? To my knowledge, there are but few examples of such salutations in the corpus. But these few suggest that the greeting uttered when meeting was also used in saying good-bye, with one wrinkle. If one said good-bye to someone leaving, then instead of the verb ‘to be,’ a verb of motion was used, namely faran (‘to go, travel’). Thus, one would literally say ‘go healthy / whole / safe’ to someone taking his leave: far gesund (sg.) and farað gesunde (pl.). Contrast the following examples:

Þa soðlice geendode se gebeorscipe, and þa menn ealle arison and gretton þone cyning and þa cwene and bædon hie gesunde beon and ham gewendon (ApT 17.15) ‘Then the party ended, and everyone rose and paid their respects to the king and queen (lit., ‘greeted the king and the queen and bade them be healthy’) and went home’ (i.e., the king and queen remain behind, while the guests leave).
Farað nu gesunde and gesælige becumað (ÆLS (Maur) 89), lit., ‘go healthy now and arrive fortunate.’

Compare the very similar expressions in Old Norse:

hann bað þá vel fara ok heila hittask (Egils saga 22, cited in Cleasby p. 265 “hitta“) lit. ‘he bade them go well and be met whole’
bað heila fara ok heila hittask (Fornmanna sögur iv. 171, cited in Cleasby p. 249 “heill“) lit. ‘bade them go whole and be met whole’

Early West Saxon Forms

The forms of the adjectives given above (sg. gesund / hāl; & pl. gesunde / hāle) are the Late West Saxon forms, reflecting the generalization of the masculine nominative forms at the expense of the original neuter and feminine counterparts. In early West Saxon, however, unique nominative feminine endings did exist, but since both gesund and hāl are heavy stems, the feminine singular ending would be lost here as well, and so the form would end up being identical to the masculine singular, thus bēo gesund / hāl. The expected feminine plural form would be bēoð gesunda / hāla, but even in this earlier period, -e rather than -a is also found, although less often (Hogg & Fulk 2011; §4.13-17 & 4.41-43). And what did one say if addressing a mixed group of males and females? The corpus gives no absolutely clear example (Mitchell 1985: §38 & 128), although it has been claimed that a neuter ending would be expected here, comparable to the situation in Gothic (Quirk & Wren 1977: §124).


And so how might one translate ‘good morning’ in the opening scene of The Hobbit (for those eccentrics who might trouble their head over such a question)? This was my solution:

“God morgen!” cwæð Bilba, and he hit mænde. Seo sunne scan, and þæt gærs wæs swiðe grene. Ac locode Gandalf wið hine, under bruwum langum and þiccum, þe furðor ut scorodon þonne his scadihtan hættes brerd.
“Hwæt mænst þu?” cwæð he. “Wysct þu þæt hit me sie god morgen, oððe mænst þu þæt hit god morgen sie, wille ic oððe nelle ic, oððe þæt hit þe sie god morgen, oððe þæt hit sie god morgen god on to beonne?”

“Good morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.
“What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”

(Literally,  ‘“[It’s] a good morning!” said Bilbo … “Do you wish that it be a good morning for me, or do you mean that it be a good morning, whether I want it or not, or that it be a good morning for you, or that it be a good morning to be good on?’)

The spelling in all of the OE examples above has been normalized.


Cleasby, R. & G. Vigfusson. 1962. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Clarendon Press.
, R. & R. Fulk. 2011. A Grammar of Old English. Wiley-Blackwell.
Mitchell, B. 1985. Old English Syntax. Clarendon Press.
Quirk, R. & C. Wren. 1977. An Old English Grammar. Methuen.

“There She Blows!” Flatulence in Old English

“There She Blows!” Flatulence in Old English

My innards have been a bit off lately, which has made me wonder about the Old English terms for ‘flatulence.’ And so I have put together a very short-winded post on my findings. The OE equivalent of our ‘flatulence, gas, wind’ then was simply the common word for ‘wind,’ to wit, wind, the corresponding adjective being windig ‘windy.’ To disambiguate, one could also use the phrase wambe wind lit. ‘wind of the belly,’ or windig wamb lit. ‘windy belly,’ or windig ǣðm lit. ‘windy exudation,’ or windig āþundenness lit. ‘windy swelling’ (i.e., a feeling of bloatedness accompanied by wind):

gif seo wamb bið windes full (Lch ii 224, 34) ‘if he is flatulent,’ lit. ‘if the belly is full of wind,’
gif se utgang sie windig and wæterig (Lch ii 236, 6) ‘if the evacuation is marked by flatulence and diarrhea,’ lit. ‘if the out-going be windy and watery.’

The use of the common word for ‘wind’ to mean also ‘flatulence’ may have been a Proto-Germanic inheritance, cf. e.g., Old Norse vindgangr ‘flatulence’ (lit. ‘wind-going’).

An alternative OE construction was bēon forblāwen ‘to be distended with wind, to be flatulent:’

gif mann sie innan forblawen (Lch II (2 Head) 34) ‘if one is flatulent,’
gif mann sie forblawen (Lch II (2) 34.2.5) ‘if one is flatulent.’

The literal sense of the past participle forblāwen was ‘blown away’ or ‘blown violently,’ and the verb forblāwan could be used more generally of a driving wind or of the sea becoming stirred up by the wind.

There was also the equivalent of our more homely verb to fart, unattested until the thirteenth century, but it must have been *feortan in OE, as shown by the extant verbal noun feorting (extant once as a gloss) ‘act of breaking wind, farting.’ Cognates can be found in the other early Germanic languages: Old High German ferzan, Old Norse freta, < late Proto-Germanic *fertana / *fretana ‘to fart.’ In fact, the verbal root appears to go back to Proto-Indo-European: cf. Sanskrit párdati ‘(he) farts,’ Greek pérdō / pérdomai ‘I fart,’ Russian perdet’ ‘to fart,’ Lithuanian pérsti ‘to fart.’ In addition to feorting, a noun *feort ‘fart’ vel sim. likely existed as well, cf. Old High German firz ‘fart’ (variant furz) and Old Norse fretr ‘fart.’

And lastly, a synonym of feorting was fīsting (extant twice as a gloss) ‘the act of breaking wind, farting’ (no etymological connection with feasting, by the way). The word seems to be a derivative of a (lost?) noun *fīst, cf. Middle High German vīst ‘fart’ (< vīsen ‘to fart,’ cf. Old Norse físa ‘to fart’).

“Tag Questions” in Old English


“Tag Questions” in Old English

A common construction in Modern English is the so-called tag question, i.e., a question to which a negative or alternatively an affirmative answer is expected. To form one of these questions with an expected negative response, a negated statement is simply followed by a short affirmative question repeating the subject and finite verb (or using do), thus, you’re not tagging me, are you? To form a question to which an affirmative answer is expected, one reverses the placement of the negative, thus you’re tagging me, aren’t you?

What were the equivalents of these in Old English? It is, in fact, fairly easy to identify the OE counterparts, thanks to the existence of a number of texts which are translations from Latin into OE. Here one looks at how the OE translator rendered Latin clauses containing the two interrogative particles numquid (negative response expected) and nonne (affirmative response expected).

Negative Response Expected

If a negative response was expected, the speaker of OE would place, at the beginning of a positive direct question, the short clause cwi(t)st þū (lit., ‘say you’), or cweðe gē (lit. ‘say you’), or cweðe wē (lit. ‘say we’). (The verbs wēnan ‘to expect, to ween’ and secgan ‘to say’ could be used instead of cweðan as well, but for brevity’s sake, I give examples only with the latter verb.) These are essentially questions with the sense ‘are you (or we) really saying or claiming that such-and-such is the case? (I think not).’ Thus you’re not tagging me, are you? becomes literally are you saying, are you tagging me?

Cwist þu, eart þu of þisses leorningcnihtum? (J 18.17) ‘you are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?’ (numquid et tu ex discipulis es?), lit. ‘are you saying, are you of this one’s disciples?’
Cweðe ge, is he Crist? (J 4.29) ‘he is not Christ, is he?’ (Numquid ipse est Christus?), lit. ‘are you saying, is he Christ?’
Þa menigu ealle wundrodon and cwædon, “Cweðe we, is þes Dauides sunu?” (Mt 12.23) ‘all the crowds were amazed and said, “he is not the son of David, is he?’” (numquid hic est Filius David?), lit. ‘…are we saying, is this David’s son?’

As these examples show, the choice of the pronoun depended on who was addressed: cwi(t)st þū when addressing a single person, cweðe gē when addressing more than one person, and cweðe wē when addressing a group of which the speaker was part.

The clause following cwi(t)st þū, etc. could also appear as an indirect question (often with the subjunctive) introduced by the subordinators þæt ‘that’ or hwæðer ‘whether (or not).’ Thus you’re not tagging me, are you? can also be literally are you saying that (or ‘whether or not’) you are tagging me?

Hie andswarodon and cwædon to him, “Cwist þu þæt þu sie Galileisc? … nan witega ne cymð fram Galilea” (J 7.52) ‘they answered and said to him, “You are not from Galilee, are you? … no prophet will come from Galilee”’ (numquid et tu Galilaeus es?), lit. ‘… are you saying that you be Galilean? …’
Ge Tharsisce ceastergewaran, cweðe ge þæt ic Apollonius eow dyde æfre ænigne unþanc? (ApT 50.6) ‘I, Apollonius, have never shown any ingratitude to you Tarsians, have I?’ lit. ‘you Tarsian townsfolk, are you saying that I Apollonius ever showed you any ingratitude?’
Cweðe we hwæðer þa ealdras ongieten þæt þis is Crist? (J 7.26) ‘the authorities do not recognize that he is Christ, do they?’ (numquid vere cognoverunt principes quia hic est Christus?), lit. ‘are we saying whether (or not) the authorities might recognize that this is Christ?’
Þa cwæð Iudas, þe hine belæwde, “Cwist þu, lareow, hwæðer ic hit sie?” (Mt 26.25) ‘then said Judas, who had betrayed him, “Rabbi, it is not me, is it?” (numquid ego sum, rabbi?), lit. ‘… are you saying, Rabbi, whether (or not) I be it?’

Affirmative Response Expected

If an affirmative response was expected, the speaker of OE would place, at the beginning of a negated direct question, the interrogative pronoun / exclamatory particle (with or without the emphasizing / emotive particle ). Thus, you’re tagging me, aren’t you? becomes literally how, are you not tagging me? (It is unclear whether is to be analysed here as an interrogative pronoun or as an exclamatory particle; I have assumed the latter.)

Hlaford, hu, ne seowe þu god sæd on þinum æcere? ‘Master, you have sown good seed in your field, have you not?’ (Mt 13.27) (nonne bonum semen seminasti in agro tuo?), lit. ‘Master, how, did you not sow good seed in your field?’
Hu, ne hæfð he sawle? (Solil 16.9) ‘he has a soul, does he not?’ lit. ‘how, has he not a soul?’

(The spelling in all of the OE examples given above has been normalized.)

‘Sir, Madam, Miss’? Being Polite in Old English


‘Sir, Madam, Miss’? Being Polite in Old English

It is not uncommon for hierarchically ordered societies to make much of titles and polite address. And so a student of Old English might well wonder how the Anglo-Saxons, with their royalty, aristocracy, freemen, and slaves, expressed deference in speech. In other words, what were the equivalents of our ‘sir, mister, madam, ma’am, miss, my lord, my lady,’ etc.?

A common way of expressing deference or respect in address was to use the adjective lēof ‘dear’ (> ModE lief) in the “vocative,” usually with the nominative strong adjective inflection, and with or without the “vocative” particle (ēa)lā preposed. This adjective could be used when addressing a man (‘sir(e), mister, my lord, master,’ etc.), God (‘(O) Lord, dear Lord’), and presumably a woman (‘madam, ma’am, miss, my lady, mistress,’ etc.):

Ne geweorðe hit, la leof, þæt þu yfelne dom gesette (Gen 18.25) ‘far be if from you to do such a thing,’ lit., ‘let it not happen that you, sir, pass wicked judgement’ (absit a te ut rem hanc facias).
Þine stefne ic hierde, leof, on neorxnawange, and ic ondræde me (Gen 3.10) ‘Thy voice I heard in the garden, and I was afraid’ (vocem tuam audivi in paradiso et timui eo), with God as the one addressed.
Hie andswarodon and cwædon, “Gea, leof (Nic(A) 132) ‘they answered, saying, “Yes, Your Honour.”’

Noteworthy in the first two examples (and elsewhere) is the OE translator’s introduction of lēof where nothing comparable existed in the Vorlage, here the Vulgate. This suggests that a not infrequent use of lēof in discourse was idiomatic to OE.

The adjective, moreover, could be combined with a title (e.g., cyning ‘king’) or with a word so used (e.g., fæder ‘father,’ hlāford ‘lord, master’):

He andwyrde sona, “Þu leofa cyning, leofa þu on ecnesse, min God me asende to sona his engel” (ÆHom 22.326) ‘he answered at once, “Your Highness, Your enduring Majesty, to me did my God send his angel without delay.”’
Wulfstan arceb. grett Cnut cyning his hlaford and Ælfgiefe þa hlæfdigan, and ic cyðe inc, leof, þæt … (Ch1386 (Harm 27) 2) ‘Archbishop Wulfstan sends his greetings to his lord King Cnut and the lady Emma, and I inform you both, sire, that …’
[Hie] cwædon to him, “La leof fæder, Ioseph leofað þin sunu (Gen 45.26) ‘[they] said to him, “Father, your son Joseph is alive”’ (nuntiaverunt ei dicentes Ioseph vivit).
Hwæt sægst þu, ierðling? Hu begæst þu weorc þin? — Eala leof hlaford, þearle ic deorfe (ÆColl 25) ‘What about you, ploughman? How do you go about your work? — O, master, I work hard’ (quid dicis tu, arator? quomodo exerces opus tuum? — O, mi domine, nimium laboro).

As the first of these last four examples shows, the corresponding weak ending could also be used instead (cf. Gothic where an attributive adjective in the vocative is weak, if the adjective can take weak endings).

If more than one person were addressed, then lēof, of course, needed to be in the plural:

Leofan menn, uton don swa us micel þearf is (WHom 7a.15) ‘dearly beloved, let us do as it is most needful for us to do’ (in a secular context, leofan menn, lit. ‘dear people,’ would presumably correspond to ‘ladies and gentleman’).
Ealle þas þing, leofe gebroðru, Abrahames bearn foresægdon (LS 11 (James) 85) ‘all these things, dear brethren, Abraham’s offspring had proclaimed.’

The weak form of the adjective could also appear coupled with a possessive adjective:

[He] cwæð to þæm biscope, mid bliðre ansiene, “Min leofa, underfoh þis” (ÆLS (Denis) 264) ‘[he] said to the bishop, with a joyful countenance, “Accept this, Your Grace.”’
Min leofa, ic þe lære  þæt … (Conf 10.1 (Thorp) 30) ‘sir, I will instruct you that …’

The reflex of lēof continued to be used in polite address as late as the seventeenth century. Consider, for example, “Lief bellyn wherfore be ye angry?” (Caxton’s Reynard of 1481, cited in the OED, “lief”).

(The spelling in all the OE examples above has been normalized.)

What’s What with Old English Hwæt


What’s What with Old English Hwæt

Students of Old English are apt to equate hwā with ‘who,’ and hwæt with ‘what.’ But this is an oversimplification. Hwæt can correspond not only to ‘what’ but also to ‘who.’

As an equivalent to ModE ‘who,’ hwæt is used to refer to a definite antecedent, while hwā is used to refer to an indefinite one. This usage survived into Early ModE, and a couple of passages from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet will be helpful in clarifying the distinction. As the guests leave the Capulets’ party, Juliet points out various individuals who are leaving and asks after their identity:

Juliet.        Come hither Nurse. What is yond gentleman?
Nurse.        The son and heir of old Tiberio.
Juliet.        What’s he that now is going out of door?
Nurse.        Marry, that I think be young Petruchio.
Juliet.        What’s he that follows here, that would not dance?
Nurse        I know not.
Juliet.        Go ask his name. (I.v.127-133)

“What is yond gentleman?” (= ModE ‘who is that gentleman?’) means as much as ‘I see that gentleman, but I do not know his identity and so would like to be enlightened about it.’ Contrast this with the following passage, wherein the Prince attempts to determine who is responsible for the deaths of Tybalt and Mercutio:

Prince.    Benvolio, who began this bloody fray?
Benvo.    Tybalt, here slain, whom Romeo’s hand did slay. (III.i.153-154)

“Who began this bloody fray?” means as much as ‘can you point out to me which person started this fight? (I may or may not know his or her identity once it is made clear to me which person it is).’ If the Prince had not known who this murdering Tybalt was, he might have asked in turn ‘What is Tybalt?’ (= ‘Who is Tybalt?’), as Benvolio did (II.iv.18) and learnt that Tybalt was “more than Prince of Cats.” In short, ‘what’ here means ‘what is the identity of a given person?’ (definite antecedent), while ‘who’ means ‘which person?’ (indefinite antecedent).

This is wholly in agreement with OE usage. Compare the following:

Eala Dryhten, hwa is þin gelica? (Ps(P) 34.11) ‘O Lord, who is like unto thee? (Domine, quis similis tibi?), i.e., which person or entity, if any, can compare with you?
Hwa is þæt þe eall þa yfel … asecgan mæge? (Or 42.6) ‘Who is it that can describe all those ills?’ i.e., which person, if any, can describe all those ills?

Hwæt is þes ealda mann? … hit is an biscop se dyde mare yfel þonne god (BlHom 43.32) ‘Who is this old man? … he is a bishop who did more harm than good,’ i.e., tell me about this particular old man
Hwæt is se gewuldroda cyning? (Ps(P) 23.10) ‘who is this king of glory? (quis est iste rex gloriae?), i.e., tell me about this particular king.

A striking contrast is provided by the following two examples:

Ac hwa is ure Fæder? Se Ælmihtiga God (ÆCHom i.254.5) ‘But who is our Father? The almighty God,’ i.e., which person or entity is to be regarded as our (true) father?
Hwæt is se Fæder? Ælmihtig Scieppend, na geworht ne acenned (ÆCHom i.278.15) ‘Who is the Father? An almighty creator, neither made nor born,’ i.e., tell us about the nature of our Father.

The use of what to mean ‘who’ is still possible in certain contexts in ModE, in such questions as what are you, some kind of freak? or what am I to him? which clearly do not ask about which particular person is meant but rather inquire into a given person’s nature, function, character, or background.

“Off With Their Heads!” How to Murder in Old English

“Off With Their Heads!”
How to Murder in Old English

goyaNo history of the Anglo-Saxons — or any other part of the human race, for that matter — is complete without gory death and gruesome murder. Why, it’s to die for, if you’re keen on the sensational. And so if you have a weakness for the latter, as I do, you may well have asked yourself at one point or another, how did one bump a body off in Old English?

The basic term was cwellan (extant ca. 90x), with its prefixed fellow ācwellan (ca. 500x), ‘to kill,’ > ModE to quell (used only figuratively now, of course), < late Proto-Germanic *(uz)kwaljana ‘to make suffer,’ causative to *-kwelana ‘to suffer.’ Cwellan was preferred especially when the action was viewed as habitual (þa cempan þa hine gelæddon to þære cwealmstowe þær mann cwealde sceaðan ‘the soldiers then took him to the place of execution where criminals were put to death’) or as imperfective (wolde his sunu cwellan folmum sinum ‘wanted to kill his son with his own hands’), while ācwellan was preferred when the result was to be stressed (Caim wæs his sunu, þe acwealde his broðor Abel gehaten ‘Cain was his son, who killed his own brother named Abel’).

No Pain, No Gain


The martyrdom of Ælfheah

For more sensational deaths, those involving torment and suffering — think Texas Chainsaw Massacre — there was (ā)cwielm(i)an (ca. 120x), a derivative of the noun cwealm ‘death (by violence or contagion, i.e., one involving suffering)’ < PG *kwalmaz. One might use this verb, as one Anglo-Saxon chronicler did, to describe, for example, the death of stingy Archbishop Ælfheah of Canterbury in 1012, who was “stoned,” as it were, with bones and skulls before receiving his coup de grâce from an axe ([hie] hine þær þa bismorlice acwielmdon ‘then there [they] ignominiously killed him’). Incidentally, public peltings of wrongdoers were still fashionable in Western Europe as late as the nineteenth century.

More Dead-Pan

Less sensational and less common was (ā)dīedan (ca. 50x), causative to (ā)dēadian ‘to die, be dead’ (cf. Gothic (ga)dauþjan / afdauþjan, ModG töten), extant mainly in Ælfric and thus spelled -dyd-: ælc mann bið eac fordemed þe hine selfne adiett (‘anyone who kills him- or her-self will also be damned’). One might also use gedōn tō cwale / dēaðe lit. ‘to put to death,’ or gedōn dēad- lit. ‘to make dead.’

Murder Will Out

babyIf feeling a little morally outraged, one could also speak of murder, thus (ge)fremman morðor lit. ‘to frame murder,’ (ā)cwellan þurh morðor lit. ‘to kill through murder,’ formyrðr(i)an (4x) ‘to murder (off), or āmyrðr(i)an (2x) / ofmyrðrian (1x) ‘to murder’ (perfective), the latter three verbs implying a *myrðr(i)an: gif wif hire cild formyrðrie—innan hire oððe siððan hit forð cume—mid drencum oððe mid mistlicum þingum, fæste X gear (‘if a woman should murder her child—while within her or after it should come out—with potions or sundry things, she is to fast for ten years’). A whopping penance that! According to Wulfstan’s canon laws, a monk-killer got only seven years of exile (and could presumably eat all he wanted while away).

Let Me Count the Ways

The hyperbolic might demand a verb with the sense of ‘destroy’ or ‘annihilate,’ thus fordōn, (for)spillan / gespillan, forwyrcan, fordīlgian, forfaran, āhӯðan, āīeðan, forpǣran, gedōn tō forlore. If bloodshed on a grander scale was envisaged, one might need forslēan ‘to massacre, slaughter’ (used esp. of the war-fallen).

More fanciful flights might be better served by figurative applications: ādwǣscan ‘to extinguish,’ forsendan ‘to dispatch,’ forniman ‘to take away,’ (ā)ceorfan / forceorfan ‘to cut down / off’ (cf. ModE to carve), āhēawanforhēawan ‘to hew down,’ gefiellan (tō dēaðe) / (ā)fiellan / offiellan / āhrīeran ‘to fell,’ gesǣgan ‘to make sink,’ forbrecan / forgnīdan ‘to crush,’ (ā)mierran / āmǣr(i)an lit. ‘to mar, ruin,’ forgrindan ‘grind down,’ āgēotan / (ā)gīetan blōd ‘to shed (someone’s) blood,’ (ā)lecgan (on dēaðe) ‘to lay (to rest) (in death),’ forhīenan ‘to bring low,’ rēodan ‘to redden (i.e., with blood),’ oþþringan līf / feorh / ealdor ‘to thrust from life,’ ātēon of līchaman / þissum līfe / þissum lēohte ‘to remove (someone) from the body / this life / this light,’  forcuman ‘to overcome,’ forglendrian ‘to swallow up,’ (ge)endian ‘to end.’

shakespeare-with-skullThe poetically inclined might wish to avail themselves of such (bardic) rarities as (ā)bredwian (2x) lit. ‘to prostrate’ (cf. OHG bretōn ‘to strike down’), (ā)brēotan (20x) lit. ‘to break, crush,’ (ā)swebban (9x) lit. ‘to send to sleep,’ forwegan (1x) lit. ‘to shift away.’ Apparently recherché were āstierfan (2x, causative of āsteorfan > ModE to starve), belibban / belifian (4x) lit. ‘to bereave of life,’ forferian (1x) lit. ‘to make pass away,’ forstregdan (1x) ‘to destroy,’ and nǣcan (1x).

To Off or Not To Off

And there were still other verbs, which described the manner of death. And these involved the use of a handy little prefix, to wit, of- (> ModE off-, as in to offset). The basic spatial sense of this prefix was ‘off, away,’ but of- could also be used figuratively to mean ‘to kill’ by whatever means were indicated by the verbal root. The sense development was evidently something like the following: ‘to make s.th. go away’ (cf. to herd off) > ‘to get rid of’ (cf. to shake off) > ‘to kill’ (cf. to (bump) off). Thus we have:

ofbēatan ‘to kill by beating’
offeallan ‘to kill by falling on’
ofhnītan ‘to kill by goring’
ofscēotan / ofscotian ‘to kill by shooting’
ofslēan ‘to kill by striking’
ofsmorian ‘to kill by strangling’
ofsnīðan ‘to kill by cutting’
ofstǣnan / oftorfian / oftyrfan / ofweorpan / ofworpian ‘to kill by hurling s.th. at’
ofstician / ofstingan ‘to kill by piercing’
ofswingan ‘to kill by flogging’
oftred(d)an ‘to kill by treading on’
ofþecgan ‘to kill by consuming’
ofþryccan ‘to kill by squeezing’
ofþrysm(i)an ‘to kill by choking.’

Done to Death

If the verb already sported a (different) prefix, one dispensed with of- and instead could use the prepositional phrase tō dēaðe ‘to (one’s) death’ (variants / on dēað lit. ‘until / into death’): e.g., geættrian tō dēaðe ‘to kill by poison,’ forbærnan tō dēaðe ‘to burn to death,’ beswīcan tō dēaðe ‘to betray to one’s death,’ fordēman tō dēaðe ‘to condemn to death,’ gewundian oð dēað ‘to wound mortally.’  It should be noted that tō dēaðe seems to have been neutral with regard to Aktionsart, i.e., seems to have lacked any sense of reiterated or continued action that the modern counterpart has with less abstract verbs; to shoot to death, for example, now necessarily implies multiple hits, while a semelfactive reading is now the norm with such abstract verbs as to condemn, to betray, etc.

The prefix of-, moreover, could even be used together with tō dēaðe, presumably for emphasis (a bit of overkill, really), and this applies as well to at least a few other resultative verbs with a different prefix, such as ācwellan:

he wæs ofswungen on deað ‘he was flogged to death’ (lit. ‘off-flogged to death,’ i.e., ‘flogged until he was indeed dead’)
oftorfie eall seo burgwaru hine mid stanum to deaðe
‘all the townsfolk are to stone him to death’ (lit. ‘off-turf to death with stones,’ i.e., ‘they are to stone him until he is most certainly dead’)
gif hwa his cild ofsliehð to deaðe ungewealdes, fæste III gear ‘if anyone in striking his child unintentionally kills it, he is to fast for three years’ (lit. ‘off-strikes to death’)
we geliefað þæt hine mann on rode ahenge and hine to deaðe acwealde ‘we believe that he was crucified and put to death’ (lit. ‘killed to death,’ i.e., ‘was indeed killed,’ otherwise there would be no such thing as a resurrection from the dead)
cf. Early ModE a vengeful canker eat him up to death (Shakes. Sonn. xcix, i.e., ‘eat him up until he is indeed no more,’ with the particle up now in place of a verbal prefix, ‘to eat up to death’ = OE ofþecgan tō dēaðe).

Both prefix and phrase could be dispensed with especially when the action was seen as imperfective or habitual: [he] wolde slean eaforan sinne (‘[he] wanted to kill his own son’), with slean rather than ofslean; and þonne feddon hie þa mægdencild and slogon þa hysecild (‘then they would rear up the girls and kill off the boys’), with slogon rather than ofslogon.

Last Words

The prefix ā- functioned in the same way as “offing” of- with a few verbs, e.g., ādrencan lit. ‘to kill by making s.o. drink,’ i.e., ‘to drown s.o.,’ āhangian ‘to kill by hanging (in crucifixion),’ āwyrgan ‘to kill by strangulation,’ ābītan ‘to kill by biting or rending.’ In a few cases, one and the same verb allowed either prefix: of-, ā-þrysm(i)an ‘to kill by choking’ (beside forþrysm(i)an), of-, ā-smorian ‘to kill by choking’ (beside forsmorian). Like the of-verbs, these ācounterparts also allowed the pleonastic use of tō dēaðe, e.g., ācēocian tō dēaðe ‘to choke to death.’ And again like of-, the prefix could be dispensed with to stress habitual or imperfective action, leastwise with some verbs: hu Bonifatius mid his gebede adiedde þone fox þe bat his modor henna (‘how through prayer Boniface killed the fox that was killing his mother’s chickens’), with bat instead of abat here (ābāt = 3p. sg. pret. of ābītan).

All this should leave you now with wælstōwe geweald (lit. ‘wieldership of the slaughter-place,’ i.e., ‘in possession of the field’).


The Birds and the Bees in Old English

The Birds and the Bees in Old English

birds-and-bees“Birds do it, bees do it”—so the song goes. And yes, the Anglo-Saxons did it and had words for it. So to cut to the chase, how did one say ‘to have sex’ in Old English? As in Modern English, there were a number of words or expressions, although most of the extant items seem to have been euphemisms, not surprisingly, given that much of the writing in OE is devotional in nature.

One of the more common terms was hǣman mid / wið, a derivative of hām ‘home.’ The verb, leastwise in this intransitive use, would seem to have meant originally ‘to be at home with,’ given the etymology (cf. Old Norse heima ‘to take in, to give shelter to,’ and Middle High German heimenid.,’ all from a late Proto-Germanic *haimijana). Consider, “se þe mid oðres ceorles wife hæme fæste IV gear … gif bædling mid bædlinge hæme, X winter fæste” (‘he who has intercourse with another man’s wife is to fast for four years … if a homosexual has intercourse with a homosexual, he is to fast for ten years’). A long hunger for a bit of satiety! A variant was habban / begān hǣmed mid / wið lit. ‘to have / engage in intercourse with,’ as in “ic wið bryde ne mot hæmed habban” (‘with a bride I may not have intercourse’).

Another expression was licgan mid / wið lit. ‘to lie with;’ e.g., “gif oðer mann mid hire læge ær” (‘if another man should have lain with her before’). There was also slǣpan mid / wið lit. ‘to sleep with,’ and so, “gif hwa fæmnan beswice unbeweddode and hire mid slæpe” (‘if someone should seduce a virgin unwed (or unbetrothed) and sleep with her’). Both of these expressions would seem to go back to late Proto-Germanic, given Old Norse liggja hjá / með lit. ‘to lie with’ = ‘to have sex with;’ Gothic galigri ‘coitus,’ and Old High German ligari ‘lying, fornication,’ Early New High German bei (jm.) liegen lit. ‘to lie with’ = ‘to have sex with;’ and Middle High German mit (jm.) slâfen lit. ‘to sleep with’ = ‘to have sex with.’

The following were likely highly sanitized expressions:

brūcan ‘to enjoy’ someone, or brūcan gemānan ‘to the enjoy the society’ of someone, or brūcan beddes ‘to enjoy the bed’ of someone (but brūcan engla gemānan ‘to enjoy the company of angles’ is an altogether different thing, gemānan ‘company’ = ‘communion’ here!)
(n)āgan weres / wīfes gemānan (þurh hǣmedþing) lit. ‘(not) to have a man’s / woman’s society (in venery)’
grētan ‘to approach, greet’
genēalǣcan ‘to approach’
cunnan and ongietan ‘to know’ carnally (the former with euphemistic amplification: cunnan (þurh) gebedscipe / gemæcscipe ‘to know (through) bedfellowship / companionship,’ cunnan (of) weres frīge ‘to know a man’s embraces,’ cunnan (of) weres gemǣnnesse ‘to know a man’s fellowship’); this usage is perhaps modeled on the Biblical idiom (cf. Luke 1.34).

But how do such notable later vulgarisms as to swive or the “f-word” fit in historically? The former comes from OE swīfan ‘to sweep, wend,’ but the sexual meaning is extant only from the 14C according to the OED (but this may be due simply to an incomplete record). And the latter word, so fundamental to spoken ModE, seems to be a Middle Low German loanword adopted after the OE period (Liberman 2008: 78).

It seems highly likely that there were many more, especially noneuphemistic, expressions in OE, which were perhaps figurative applications of verbs denoting various kinds of movement. This would be in line with what we know of such terms cross-lingually. As Liberman puts it (2008: 78), “the number of metaphorical expressions for ‘copulate’ is almost endless, as modern dictionaries of synonyms and annotated editions of Greek and Latin authors…show.”


Liberman, A. 2008. An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology, An Introduction. University of Minnesota Press.

Got the Sniffles, in Old English

Got the Sniffles, in Old English

coldI am fighting off a cold, which has prompted my groggy brain to wonder about how one expressed ‘to have a cold’ in Old English. Attested only five times, gepos (neut. a-stem) was apparently the common term for ‘(head-)cold’ (< Brythonic *pas- ‘cough’). The noun is found twice in conjunction with gesnot ‘catarrh, mucus’ (extant only twice): wið gesnote and (wið) geposum ‘for the treatment of catarrh and head-colds.’ Presumably then, one would have said *habban þæt gepos for ‘to have a cold.’ Such a phrase is at least suggested by the Middle English equivalent to have(n) the pose, cf. “he hath the pose” (Chaucer’s “Manciple’s Prologue,” l. 62). An alternative suggested again by Middle English is *bēon on (þǣm) gepose, lit. ‘to be in a cold’ (ME to be(n) on the pose), cf. “he speketh thurgh the nose / As he were on the quake or on the pose” (Chaucer’s “Reeve’s Tale,” l. 4152), lit. ‘he speaks through the nose as if he were hoarse or had a cold.’ (The noun pose continued to be used as late as the early nineteenth century, according to the OED, at least in dialect.) And what did one do when one had “the pose”? One would of course “snite”—to use the obsolete word (< OE snŷtan)—that is, ‘blow or clear (one’s nose).’ The verb snŷtan is the reflex of late Proto-Germanic *snūtijana ‘to clear (one’s nose),’ cf. Old Norse snýta, Old High German snûzen (> ModG schneuzen). The expected Gothic form would be *snūtjan. The verb originally seems to have meant quite literally ‘to snot.’ And so, “thag you very buch.”