The Dictionary of Old English offers a “word of the week,” and last week it was hand-saex, with which Warren Clements has some fun in his Globe and Mail column; surprisingly (to me—I wasn’t familiar with him), he doesn’t linger on the cheap laughs but goes on to a useful examination of the history of the word:
Saex comes from a Germanic root (sah or sag) meaning to cut. It survives today only in the narrowly defined word sax, a tool used to trim roofing slates. But before the Norman Conquest of 1066 reshaped the English language and gave us Middle English – a process that took about a century to filter down to ordinary folks – saex was all the rage.
There is even speculation that the Saxons, the Germanic invaders known once in England as Anglo-Saxons, got their name from the knives they carried. After all, the Old English spelling of Saxon was Seaxan (and Seaxe in the plural).
The saex played a significant role in Beowulf, the epic poem written in Old English in the eighth century or thereabouts. After the warrior Beowulf has mortally wounded the monster Grendel[…], Grendel’s mother comes seeking vengeance. She pulls Beowulf into the watery depths “ond hyre seax geteah, brad, brun-ecg” – which Seamus Heaney translates as “and pulled out a broad, whetted knife.”
He goes on to say that “Since the Dictionary of Old English’s teaser defined hand-saex as a dagger, it is worth noting that dagger, which entered Middle English by 1375, seems to have been dreamed up by the English themselves, without reference to other languages.” Most dictionaries agree with this, but The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition has a more interesting idea, tracing Middle English daggere back to various Romance forms, “perhaps” from Vulgar Latin *Daca (ensis), ‘Dacian (knife),’ from the feminine form of Latin Dācus ‘Dacian.’ Not proven or provable, but clever.
Incidentally, in relation to the saex/Saxon thing, the OED says:
In the well-known story related by Geoffrey of Monmouth after ‘Nennius’, the signal given by Hengist to his Saxons for the treacherous slaughter of their British hosts appears in the form ‘Nemet oure saxas’. The Old English form would be Nimað éowre seax, the n. being uninflected in the plural.