Old English Word of the Week

In the right sidebar of this blog you will find a section called “The Languages”.

In my upcoming book about 9th Century Northumbria, Bearing the Saint, there are three languages of importance: Old Norse, Medieval Latin, and Old English.

The last is the one of most interest to me, as it is the language spoken by my protagonists (and by my own personal ancestors, in fact). Like many others today, I first became interested in this ancient tongue via J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was of course a philologist and the fantasy world he created is woven together with his invented languages. But in the case of one group of people in Lord of the Rings, he uses an actual ancient language in which he was expert– Old English, sometimes called Anglo-Saxon, though the latter now usually refers to the people who spoke Old English in the period before the Norman conquest in AD 1066. Tolkien has the Rohirrim speak what is virtually the Mercian dialect of Old English, and portrays them as a pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon warrior culture.

Saint Cuthbert spoke the Northumbrian dialect of this same language, as did the Haliwerfolc company who carried his body away from Lindisfarne in the face of Scandinavian invasion.

The University of Toronto, where I studied Old English at the introductory level in the late 1970’s, maintains the online Dictionary of Old English. 

A page there is dedicated to an Old English Word of the Week, and this is what I have linked in the sidebar on this blog. I don’t know who chooses these words, but here’s an interesting choice they’ve made for the week after Easter this year:

Att. sp.: heldeofol | heldiobul (CorpGl)
2 occ.

devil, glossing Orcus ‘god of the infernal regions’
ClGl 1 4502: Orcus orc, þyrs ? heldeofol.
CorpGl 2 13.231: Orcus ðyrs, heldiobul.
Lat. equiv. in MS: Orcus
See also: hell, d?ofol; cf. helled?ofol
OED2 helldeoful s.v. hell n. note after sense 11.a, hell-devil s.v. hell n. sense 12. Cf. MED helle devel s.v. helle sense 2(b).

Does the connection of ‘devil’ with “Orcus”  sound familiar? Here is a brief excerpt from Wikipedia’s article on “Orcus”, an Etruscan and Roman mythological figure:

From Orcus’ association with death and the underworld, his name came to be used for demons and other underworld monsters, particularly in Italian where orco refers to a kind of monster found in fairy-tales that feeds on human flesh. The French word ogre (appearing first in Charles Perrault‘s fairy-tales) may have come from variant forms of this word, orgo or ogro; in any case, the French ogre and the Italian orco are exactly the same sort of creature. An early example of an orco appears in Ludovico Ariosto‘s Orlando Furioso, as a bestial, blind, tusk-faced monster inspired by the Cyclops of the Odyssey; this orco should not be confused with the orca, a sea-monster also appearing in Ariosto. This orco was the inspiration to J. R. R. Tolkien‘s orcs in his The Lord of the Rings. In a text published in The War of the Jewels, Tolkien stated:

Note. The word used in translation of Q urko, S orch, is Orc. But that is because of the similarity of the ancient English word orc, ‘evil spirit or bogey’, to the Elvish words. There is possibly no connexion between them. The English word is now generally supposed to be derived from Latin Orcus.

Also, in an unpublished letter sent to Gene Wolfe, Tolkien also made this comment:[2]

Orc I derived from Anglo-Saxon, a word meaning demon, usually supposed to be derived from the Latin Orcus — Hell. But I doubt this, though the matter is too involved to set out here.

Old English Word of the Weekhttp://www.saintcuthbert.net/2010/04/old-english-word-of-week.htmlhttp://www.saintcuthbert.net/feeds/posts/default?alt=rssHALIWERFOLCall things Saint Cuthbert
& my books about himhistory5


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