Eliot Gelwan, “60-something clinical psychiatrist and unrepentant counter-culturalist and contrarian,” has a nicely designed website with a page which features quirky takes on his name. His surname is unusual, and he’s written about trying to find out about its origin(s) (“As the part of the world from which my ancestors emigrated shifted back and forth between Slavic and Germanic dominance, between Cyrillic and Roman alphabets, so too did the rendering of family names. I would have to pursue the Gelvans, the Gelmans, and even the Hellmans and who knows what else for relatives”), but on the first-linked page he confines himself to this jocular quote:

a-gelwan: To stupefy, astonish; stupefacere, consternare: ‘-Ðá wearþ ic agelwed’, ‘then I was astonished’, Bt. 34, 5; Fox 140, 9.”
–Bosworth and Toller, Online Anglo-Saxon Dictionary

Naturally, I wondered if that OE verb had left traces in later English, and the OED turned up two: begallow “To frighten or terrify” (only citation: c1320 Sir Beves in Ellis Spec. II. 171 That horse was swift as any swalowe, No man might that horse begallowe) and gally “To frighten, daze, scare, startle” (first citation 1608 W. Shakespeare King Lear ix. 44 The wrathfull Skies gallow, the very wanderer of the Darke, and makes them keepe their caues). The latter has the longer and more prestigious history, but I like the prefixed form begallow; it sounds scarier.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Kusaal gɛlnwan /gɛlw̃an/ “eggcup.” Obviously.

  2. Michael Hendry says

    I would have guessed that ‘begallow’ was a verb, meaning to provide someone with equipment for a traditional hanging. Whether that someone would be the hangman, or the condemned man, or could be either depending on context, is not obvious.
    Or perhaps the object could be a place. “Residents of the tiny hamlet of [x] were pleased when the county begallowed their town square, thus promoting them to a town.” Almost as good as a post office!

  3. “Ye’ll be a-wantin’ ter see the town gallows, stranger…”

  4. Oddly I can’t find it in the Middle English Dictionary.

  5. The verb gally was previously discussed here under Sinewy Saxonisms, via a footnote in Moby-Dick.

  6. Good lord. I guess everything really has shown up here at one time or another.

  7. PlasticPaddy says

    It is there under the spelling begalewen, also the above quotation…

  8. He is obviously from House of Gelovani

  9. Is there a structured way to run this kind of reverse-etymological search in the OED? Or is it a catch-all-text-match kind of situation?

  10. Use the Advanced Search and put “Etymology” in the second box.

  11. The online OED gives the etymology for begallow as “< be- prefix 2 + gallow v.2 to terrify”, but the cross-reference is incorrect: gallow v.2 is the unrelated ‘Of a bird: To cluck, to scream’, and the link should go to the verb gally instead. The print editions had it right, listing “gallow, obs. form of gally v.” among the headwords after gallow, v.1 and v.2.

    Merriam-Webster first included the verb gally in 1890 (probably drawing on the 19th-century boom in dialect lexicography), giving the same etymology. However, in the 1961 Third New International, they changed it to “origin unknown”. The online version now says:

    Note: A supposed connection of this word with a verb gallow, occurring once in King Lear (III.ii) and taken to mean “frighten,” is very tenuous given the lack of any other evidence for such a word. Still more tenuous is a connection with the Old English word āgǣlwan “to frighten” (attested only as a past participle agælwed).

    Can’t tell whether that’s their internal notes from 1961 that they never had space to put into print, or a new revision; in either case, they’re apparently the only dictionary since the 19th century to actually reconsider this etymology. We’ll have to see what happens when the OED does its own revision.

  12. Huh! Very interesting, and yes, we’ll have to see what happens…

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