While Dr. Pelle grappled with heofon, Dr. Getz dove into hell on his first
day on the job.
The dictionary’s labyrinthine offices contain nearly a hundred black
filing cabinets overflowing with folders. An editor usually starts tackling
a word as Dr. Pelle did by consulting a folder stuffed with slips of paper
containing citations from medieval texts. But Dr. Getz’s first day was different. The slips for hell were missing.
Instead, Dr. Getz began his journey through hell by searching every
use and spelling of the word in every surviving Old English text, everything from sermons to contracts. His colleague would print each citation
and Dr. Getz would sort the paper slips into different contextual senses
using rubber bands, paperclips and shoeboxes, just as Dr. Pelle was doing
with piles and Post-it notes for heofon.
Dr. Getz found 900 citations of hell in the dictionary’s storehouse
of digitized manuscripts and nailed down its various definitions in six
weeks. Like today, its original meaning was a kind of limbo for the dead or
an underworld for the damned. The metaphorical use of the word to mean
a personal nightmare became common only many centuries later. In the
end, “hell turned out to be a lot of fun,” he says.
The word appears in curses at the end of Old English contracts or
charters, a common ending similar to our disclaimers at the end of corporate emails. Dr. Getz reads an example: “If anyone through any presumption or the instigation of the devil will violate this privilege, then after his
accursed death, let him lie forever in the bottomless pit of hell and burn in
the eternal fire with the devil and the accursed spirits that dwell with him,
forever without end.” But the curses weren’t all fire and brimstone. “Often
there was an out in the curse, such as, ‘Let him burn in the frying pans of
hell, unless he makes amends or repents beforehand,’” Dr. Getz explains.
the medieval period was an age steeped in religion, but also much more.
Medical texts, for example, would calculate the best days for bloodletting,
or would describe the best remedies for ailments such as the “half-dead
disease” (probably hemiplegia). One remedy involved melting and mixing
wax, pitch, pepper and oil and sticking the goo on the half-dead patient.
Anglo-Saxon manuscripts also contained charms to protect livestock,
to prevent demonic possession and to cure diseases caused by an elf’s arrow or spear. This was an era when magic and miracles were as real as
Vikings and dwarves.
But basic human nature appears to have been much the same as today.
One of the dictionary’s researchers, Catherine Monahan, offers an example:
“I remember reading this text, and it was a charter or a will, one of these
texts that are not commonly read. But the amazing thing was how typically
human it showed the Anglo-Saxons to be. There were two brothers. One had
a piece of land. And clearly, there was bad blood between the brothers, be-
cause the landowner was practically willing to give it away to any passer-
by before he gave it to his brother. You could see that in the charter. And I
thought: things really haven’t changed in more than a thousand years.”
Author J. R. R. Tolkien knew this, and the richness of his books em-
anates in part from their basis on Anglo-Saxon civilization and culture.
He was a professor of Old English and drew heavily from the language
for The Hobbit and his other works, starting in the 1930s. For a time, he
worked on the Oxford English Dictionary and was well known as a per-
ceptive reader and textual critic of Old English poetry, including the epic
Beowulf, the most famous text from Anglo-Saxon England. He also made
up his own languages, including Elvish tongues, Black Speech and others
for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and he borrowed names, riddles,
anecdotes, themes and literary styles from Beowulf and Old English in
general. For example, Beowulf is a king who defends his people from a
fire-breathing dragon who’s angry over a missing goblet, much like the
plot found in The Hobbit, Dr. Getz explains.
There are currently only two words left to finish out of the roughly
3,000 that belong to volume H: gehealdan (to hold) and hwaet, which may
be untranslatable, says Dr. Getz, who has been tasked with both words.
Hwaet is the first word in Beowulf and has often been taken as an interjec-
tion meaning “lo” or “listen.”
“But it may not mean that at all,” says Dr. Getz. “It may be a kind of
adverb for which we don’t have an equivalent in modern English, some-
thing like ‘how!’ as in ‘How beautiful the sky is today!’ or ‘How he was
going on and on!’”
Dr. Getz, for his part, does not have the luxury to go on and on. A past
dictionary editor told him that the hardest part of the job would be trying
not to fall in love with a word. “You have to be brutally efficient, define
each word, move on to the next,” he says. The goal is to finish H in 2016,
then continue to the next letter. Nevertheless, Dr. Getz says hwaet, from
his favourite Old English poem, may well be among his favourites. It may
even prove to be more fun than hell.
Heart (heorte): For the
Anglo-Saxons, “heart” not
only meant the organ in our
chests but a place for both the
emotions and the intellect. It was
a tough word to define because
of its 3,300 occurrences in Old
English. In the end, the definition
needed 30 single-spaced pages
for 13 main senses and another
40 or so sub-senses.
Hound (hund): Nine
years ago, when they
began the letter H, the
drafting editors of the Dictionary of
Old English started with what they
thought would be easy words, like
hund (“hound” or “dog”). To his
surprise, a drafting editor found a
10th-century medical recipe book,
Medicina de Quadrupedibus, that
recommended burning a hound’s
head, grinding the remains and
applying them to a tumour. The
editor thought maybe there was
a mistake – that the recipe book
was referring to a plant called
hounds-head, not to an actual
dog – but he dug deeper, finding
a related passage in a Latin text,
and yes, the recipe did call for
a dog’s head, or better yet, he
discovered, it called for a wolf’s
head. As it turned out, every word
in H presented the editors with
a different set of challenges.
Laugh (hlyhhan): The
ancestor of our verb
“laugh” is the Old English
hlyhhan. Like us, the
Anglo-Saxons associated laughter
with exultation and mockery,
as well as delight. Many words
that started with H in Old English
no longer have an H in modern
English. “Listen,” for example,
was hlystan. “Raven” and “ring”
were hraefn and hring. And “nut”
and “neck” were hnutu and hnecca.
Lord and lady
honorifics have a
humbler origin than today’s def-
initions. A hlaford was originally a
“bread-guardian,” while a hlaefdige
was a “bread-kneader.”
THE DIC TIONARY OF OLD ENGLISH / DEFINITIONS