Humourous Hagiography: Now a Weekly Feature

Well, I enjoyed St Eadmund so much that I think it deserves to be a weekly feature. Humourous Hagiography will be published on the Naked Philologist on Wednesdays or Thursdays for the next month or so, and next semester will be published likewise on the day of or the day after my AS class for the week.

Next week: St AEthelthryth- a lesson in the power of NO.

In the meantime, some interesting side facts about St Eadmund:

  • Ari, the author of the Islendingabok, and scrupulous collector of historical materials, dates the settlement of Iceland by the year in which Edmund died. He gets the year wrong, which we know by comparision with the other date he gives, the reign of Harold the Fair Haired in Norway, but it’s by Ari’s testimony that we know Hinguar was Ivarr, son of Ragnar Lothborok. What source Ari had for his information on Edmund is an interesting question- there was a Latin life circulating, by Abbo of Fleury, and upon which AElfric based this tale which I have just bastardised. However- and I only have the word of the Bocera on this- there have been found Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in Iceland, particularly saints lives, and it’s not impossible that the Norse, great lovers of etymology, could translate if not read directly from the Anglo-Saxon.
  • Moving on a handful of centuries, pause for a second over C.S. Lewis. Medievalist and devout Anglican, don’t think he picked the name for his sacrificial character, later ruling as “the Just”, simply because he liked the sound of “Edmund”. The story is far from parrallel- in fact, in places it’s a complete inversion. Lewis must have known he was doing it, though. The Bocera, who accuses me of ‘not paying enough attention to etymology’ (by which you can tell that he really loves etymology), points out that ‘Eadmund’ means ‘noble mouth’- Our Eadmund lives up to his name, but there might be a deliberate irony there in the case of young Edmund Pevensie.

Word of the Day!

Hello and welcome to ‘Highly has a new favourite word and will wander around muttering it under her breath for the next week’!


Say it nice and slowly. be-ste-al-kee-an1 It means ‘to move stealthily, to stalk’, and it has the most fabulous past tense form you could imagine:

Hinguar færlice swa swa wulf on lande bestalcode and Þa leode sloh…2

Hinguar (that’s particularly nasty Viking) suddenly, like a wolf, stalked on (the) land and then slew (the) people.3 Bestalcode. Isn’t it… sinister?

medieval,Why the hell not?,nerdAll the sinister effect is ruined by the fact that Hinguar’s fellow-scary-Viking-Chief-dude is named Hubba. Sorry, can’t afford you any respect at all with a name like Hubba.


1. I think. In three years I still haven’t internalised the c/ch rules. I think, from peering at Alex Jones’ Guide To Everything, that that’s how it goes. And then you have to deal with the fact that my phonetic description may not match your phonetic description. No, I don’t know IPA, but I probably should learn it sometime.
2. Which is from AElfric’s Life of St Edmund, around l. 156 in the Mitchell & Robinson textbook edition.
3. Or ‘stalked on the land and slew the people’. Leod being a feminine singular accusative, Þa could be the accusative definite pronoun. Or not. I like it better not.

Adventures in Middle English: Semantic Drift tarnishes a perfectly good word.

silly,Special MomentOnce upon a time, when I were a wee thing, my mother gave me the sage advice never to take up with a man who reffered to women as ‘chicks’ or ‘birds’. Men like this, she impressed upon me, infantalise women and treat them like objects. Somewhat tangentially, I cannot hear the word ‘chick’ without remembering the object I was holding at the time, a teatowel.

Accordingly, I was somewhat startled, reading along in Sir Gawain, to find Bertilak’s wife reffered to as the gay burde.1 Along with the intrusive teatowel, this conjures up a mental image of twenties men in smoking jackets reffering to their flapper friends as ‘quite a gay bird’.

A quick check of the TGD gloss returns ‘maiden, damsel, lady’, and suggests nothing dismissive about it. The etymology of the term is obscure, though- TGD suggest Anglo Saxon byrde, meaning embroideress.2 My Anglo-Saxon dictionary, meanwhile, doesn’t turn up that definition for byrde, instead giving me an adjective, ‘well born, noble, rich’.

The OED suggests that the term may be a poetic application of the Norse term for ‘bird’; they also suggest association with the Middle English bryde or the Anglo-Saxon bryd, but they note that even with the older form the phonetic development would be very odd indeed were that the case; the Anglo-Saxon adjective for ‘well-born’, meanwhile, they tell us is rare, occuring only once and then in a masculine form.

Advice for the week: next time you are disparagingly called a ‘bird’, hold your head high in the knowledge that you are either well born, marriagable, poetic, or possibly an embroidress.

If he calls you a chick, though- that one only turns up in the twentieth century, and has no pedigree at all.


Pratchett,pun,books1. ll. 1003
2. To which my inner Pratcheteer responds “SEAMSTRESS, nudge nudge wink wink”.

Etymology for all- and for each separately.

After the resounding success that was Getting Off Scot-Free, I’ve been somewhat lacking in inspiration.However, serendipitously, an odd google search hit on this blog, and my own intense procrastination, have combined engender curiosity about the idiom All and Sundry.

Now, the word ‘sundry’ these days used only in that idiom (which is growing rarer), and perhaps as an adjective, such as ‘Joe, and sundry others…’ The OED, ever my friend in etymological enquiry, informs me that the prevailing use is:

5. As an indefinite numeral: A number of, several.

The earliest examples of this definition which they cite are:

c1375 Sc. Leg. Saints ii. (Paulus) 26 In parelis wes he stad sindry.
1390 GOWER Conf. I. 209 This Emperour..Withinne a ten mile enviroun..Hath sondry places forto reste.

If we apply this defintion to ‘All and Sundry’, we have a tautology of sorts: all, and many. ‘Sundry and all’ would make better sense- you could treat it as an escalating scale, for emphasis.
However, sundry has been enjoying the thrills of semantic drift, as a close examination of the OED will tell you. The very earliest incidence of the word ‘sundry’, as cited in the OED, is from the Old English Bede (emphases mine):

a900 tr. Bæda’s Hist. IV. xxiii. [xxii.] (1890) 328
Þurh syndriȝe Þine ondsware [orig. per singula tua responsa] ic on ȝet & oncneow, Þæt [etc.]. Ibid. V. xxiii. (1899) 697/1 On septem Epistolas Canonicas [ic sette] syndrie bec.

This quote comes from the category Belonging or assigned distributively to certain individuals; distinct or different for each respectively. Obs. on the OED. The latest quotation in that section is Wesley, in 1738, refering to the ‘sundry’ tasks of God’s ministers in heaven. The only other category in which the OED quotes Anglo-Saxon is the first, Having an existence, position, or status apart; separate, distinct. Obs. exc. dial. This use is also cited up until the eighteenth century.

Turning to Bosworth & Toller, the definitions given for syndrig are variations on this theme: separate, alone, standing apart, special, own, several, each separately. Syndrig is related to the verb syndrian, to sunder or separate.

I was going to tell you that the idiom ‘all and sundry’ has a nice respectable Anglo-Saxon origin. My penguin dictionary of cliches informs me that the term first appeared in legal texts. All of you, and each of you separately. Has a lovely ring to it.

However, that same dictionary tells me that the phrase ‘all and sundry’ only appeared in the fourteenth century, and is probably simply a repetition for emphasis. The first example of ‘all and sundry’ in the OED is from 1389, from the same time period as the examples meaning ‘many, several’ crop up. It’s possible that the idiom was first coined with distinction, rather than plurality, in mind- after all, the distinction uses are still around for a couple of centuries- but sadly, there doesn’t seem to be solid ground on which to make that case.

I’m a bit like the nutty old man in My Big Fat Greek Wedding– if you give me five minutes, I’ll try to prove that every word you use comes from my very favourite language. Sadly, if you give me ten minutes of solid dictionary work, it often turns out that my claims are bogus.

The English language is a weird and wonderful place, people. Here’s to appreciating it’s convoluted twists and turnings through every generation in which it has been spoken!

Getting off Scot-free

Ever wondered what was so free about Scots, anyway? If escaping over the border into Scot-land exempted you from punishments?
Or, having learnt that the Old English “sc” makes “sh” sounds, perhaps you wondered if in fact those getting off ‘scot-free’ had escaped bowfire somehow?


The etymological wonders of the English language await you. Scot is in fact a fee, tax or imposition. It appears as an Old English term (apparently derived from a Germanic root word, which gives us ON skot and OF escot); in fact, the idiom scot-fre(o) occurs five times in the Old English Corpus online database. I wonder how many English language idioms have survied that long or longer?

The Middle English ‘scot’, according to the OED online, shows more Scandinavian influence than Anglo-Saxon- which is how we’re now pronouncing ‘scot’ rather than ‘shot’.

Some of the scots which you could be charged, according to the various law codes in Cotton Nero A.i, include:

*Church-scot, which, according to the OED, is

in OE. times a custom of corn collected on St. Martin’s day; extended to other contributions in kind and money made for the support of the clergy, or demanded as a traditional ecclesiastical due

* Soul-scot- a mortuary tax, the price you pay to be buried on consecrated ground.

*Romscot, or ‘Peter’s Pence’- an annual household tax, or hearth-penny, sent to the papal see in Rome.

All of these are attested in Middle English sources on the OED as well as Old. Exactly when any of them originated is a fuzzy question, because consientious characters like the Archbishop Wulfstan, when compiling collections of laws (like Cotton Nero A.i), could retro-actively adapt past law to current, inserting calls for plough-alms and Peter’s Pence in passages which already called for tithes and church-scot, for example. Wormald, in his ‘Making of English Law’, uses the calls for scots in different versions of individual codes to help map out a picture of their development. Invariably, those codes in Wulfstanian texts show greatest evidence of adaptation- even the codes he originally wrote evidence later developments; for example, AEthelred’s codes were being retro-actively adapted as Wulfstan worked on Cnut’s comprehensive codes.

How does ‘scotfre(o)’, ie, free of taxes, become ‘scot free’, free from punishment or sanction? The OED doesn’t have a suggestion regarding the semantic shift- it could be a modern shift, as the word ‘scot’ lost meaning. I wonder, though, if perhaps somewhere along the line ‘scot’, taxes, picked up a little semantic contamination from ‘weregild’, fines levied for crimes against individual men according to status?