Imps and Elves.

Anatoly Liberman posts about a couple of words with interesting histories:

The German for “to give a shot, to vaccinate” is impf-en (-en is the ending of the infinitive). Impf– is an exact cognate of English imp. How can it be? Many centuries ago, impfen (in a slightly different phonetic form) appeared in Old High German as a borrowing of Medieval Latin impotāre “to graft.” Latin impotus, itself a borrowing from Greek, meant “graft”; Greek émphutos designated “grafted, implanted.” In German, the verb became a term of winemaking and horticulture and acquired the sense “to improve the quality of wine by bunging the vessel.” Centuries later, the term began to be used for “vaccination”: thus, from “corking a bottle” to “administering a shot.”

It is the sense “graft” that determined the development of the same Latin verb in English. The Old English noun impe ~ impa meant “sapling, young shoot” (shoot: compare shot in the arm!). Later, sapling broadened its meaning and began to designate “child.” The train of thought is predictable: compare sap “juice,” the root of sapling “young tree” and still later “young person,” as in Shakespeare; scion also first meant “shoot, slip, graft.” With time, the word imp “sapling” acquired the sense “the child of the Devil” and still later “mischievous child.” […]

I wonder how many people have heard the word elfshot. It means “lumbago, backpain.” Imps are the Devil’s children, but why elves? Forget Shakespeare’s elves, the creatures that merged in oral tradition with the fairies of the ancient Celts (hence fairy tales, which, at least today, have nothing to do with fairies). We are interested in Germanic elves. The old Scandinavians knew a good deal about them, but we know relatively little, even though dozens of good articles and books have been written about their nature and origin. Our most important source is Edda, a brilliant summary of ancient tales written in the thirteenth century by the Icelandic politician, poet, and antiquarian Snorri Sturluson. By his time, the ancient elf-lore must have fallen into desuetude, for in his work we find only a short passage about the elves’ “home,” called Álfheim (the Icelandic for “elf” was alfr, later álfr; á designates long a; please keep in mind this information). […]

Naturally, scholars tried to derive the function of the elves from the root of Old Icelandic alfr, Old High German alba (Modern German Alp ~ Alpe), Old English elf ~ ylf, etc. I have often mentioned the greatest difficulty of etymological reconstruction: one cannot discover the origin of the word without knowing the function of the “thing.” […] Since the role of the elves is far from obvious (to us), the chance of guessing the etymology of elf is not high. […]

A last piece of nastiness comes from phonetics. English must have borrowed Scandinavian álf(r) “elf” early, because such borrowings usually occurred in the Middle period. Yet the first recorded forms of oaf, the descendant of álfr, go back to the 1620s. The word’s phonetic development remains unclear, and no book on the history of English explains when l was lost in it and why its au alternated with oa ~ ou. The loss of l before f did not happen in oaf regularly, “by law,” as it did in calf and half. In any case, after the loss of l, oaf no longer resembled elf, the more so because in seventeenth-century English, oaf meant “a changeling left by the elves” and only by implication, “dolt, halfwit,” rather than “elf.”

More at the link, including speculations about the etymology of elf. If I knew that oaf and elf were historically the same word, I’d forgotten.


  1. Impfstoff is currently my favorite German noun.

  2. Surprised he doesn’t mention “inoculate” which follows the same development in English.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    I notice that AL takes it for granted that the English “elf” is borrowed from Norse, rather than cognate; how do we know this? And what about that most Anglo-Saxon of all names, “Alfred”?

    I didn’t know that “imp” as “child” is prior to “imp” as “minor demon” (though it makes sense once you know); it reminds me of the Welsh plant.

  4. I think the claim is that “oaf” is the descendant of ON álfr, based presumably on the vowel development – whereas ælf would be the native OE word giving modern “elf”.

  5. David Marjanović says

    I wonder how many people have heard the word elfshot. It means “lumbago, backpain.”

    Hexenschuss, lit. “witch shot”.

    Old High German alba

    Albtraum “nightmare”, spelled with p before the reform. (…which is odd because the reform shifted away from etymology in a lot of other cases.)

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    @anhweol: yes, that makes sense.

  7. Kate Bunting says

    George Herbert wrote “…If I imp my wing on Thine…” (The penultimate paragraph gives the explanation.)

  8. Roberto Batisti says

    Hexenschuss, lit. “witch shot”.

    colpo della strega!

  9. Prehistoric stone arrowheads, which get dug up from time to time, were called “elfshot” too. This was what the elves shot at you to give you lumbago. They were invisible at first but might become visible later when the glamour wore off. Glamour was the power that elves had to make things look different than they were–either to be invisible or, e.g., to make a bag of rocks appear to be a bag of gold.

    David Eddyshaw: Alfred indeed. Ælf-red, the rede of the elves. “In the West-Saxon kingly house it is never found before him and only once after him, nor has it been borne by any king of the enlarged English kingdom. In his own age the single male Ælf-name in the family stands out in a marked way among the Æthels and Eads.” (Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900)

    Also Ælfgifu (ælf “elf” and gifu “gift”), the first wife of Æthelred “the Unready”. And there were others: Ælfgifu of Northampton, Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury, etc. Ælfgifu of Northampton was married to King Cnut, and she and her son Swein were sent to Norway to rule as regents. More women’s names: Ælfthryth (“elf strength”), Ælfwynn, Ælfflæd (“elf beauty”). Men’s names: Ælfweard, Ælfric.

    The Anglo-Saxon nobility must have liked to claim some kind of connection with elves.

  10. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne uses elf, imp, and (wood) sprite (to describe young Pearl) interchangeably, as if they were synonymous to him. My American Literature teacher in high school (possibly the most unprepared teacher I ever had) was apparently unable to process this incongruity and, in an unconscious attempt to reduce the resulting cognitive dissonance, actively denied that Pearl was ever compared to an elf. She persisted in this until one of the other students pointed out that one of the chapter titles is, in fact, “The Elf-Child and the Minister.”

  11. PlasticPaddy says

    Would the “l” in Aelfric have been pronounced? There is an Irish female name Aifric. The etymologies I can find is:
    1. From Latin “Africa”
    2. From Old Irish “aithbhreac”, composed of two elements: from the Gaelic “Aithb(er)”, meaning “reproach” plus “hreac” (Anglo-Saxon: hreác)
    The first etymology is unusual (unless there is a Latin saint Afric or Africa) and the second strikes me as a Heath-Robinson jumble (also who would name their daughter “heap of reproaches”?).

  12. possibly the most unprepared teacher I ever had

    My younger brother had an English teacher in high school (a very young English teacher, possibly straight out of college) who did not realize George Eliot was a woman until my brother told him. (To his credit, he accepted the correction with good grace and appropriate embarrassment rather than taking offense.)

  13. marie-lucie says

    What about the “Erl” in “Erlkônig”? Just thinking of Schubert’s music makes me shiver. Was “Erl” substituted for “Elf” in order to negate the legendary king’s supernatural power, which could be called up if he was mentioned?

  14. Wiktionary:

    Calque of Danish ellerkonge (“king of the elves”), in which eller- was misinterpreted as German Low German Eller (“alder”), and which was thus translated into standard German as Erlkönig (Erle +‎ König). This form was spread by Goethe’s famous poem. German Low German Eller is from Middle Low German elre, from Old Saxon elis.

  15. Beat you by a minute!

  16. PlasticPaddy says

    Yours was more complete, so i deleted mine????

  17. Per Wikipedia:
    Der Stoff der Ballade stammt aus dem Dänischen, dort heißt der Erlkönig Ellerkonge (Nebenform von Elverkonge), also ‚Elfenkönig‘. Die Ballade wurde ursprünglich von Johann Gottfried Herder übersetzt. Dabei entstand der Begriff „Erlkönig“ aus der falschen Übersetzung des Wortes Eller als ‚Erle‘.
    So the original name was Danish Ellerkonge, a variant of Elverkonge “elven king”. That variant was misunderstood as meaning “alder king” by Herder when he translated the Danish name for his own ballad Herr Oluf, (Erle “alder”), and that ballad was where Goethe got the name from. I don’t know whether the Danish variant was indeed tabuistic, or whether it just shows the usual Danish consonant erosion 😉
    Edit: Double-ninja’d 🙂

  18. marie-lucie says

    Thank you, Germanic ballad experts! The French version (not really known unless you studied German or Romantic music) is the litteral translation of Goethe’s poem, with “Le roi des aulnes” ‘the Alder king’. But “Le roi des elfes” would not inspire terror in French people, for whom “un elfe” is a tiny sprite, unlikely to affect humans any more than alder trees do.

  19. Jeffry House says

    My wife told me that she was aware of the use of the expression “to imp together” in archery, meaning to repair the fletching on an arrow by adding in missing feathers. I had never heard of this, and looked it up. Lo and behold:

    To Imp: “ to repair a damaged feather in (the wing or tail of a trained hawk) by attaching part of a new feather.”

    Ok, that isn’t archery, but it does fit the arrow repair idea quite well.

  20. J.W. Brewer says

    Here’s a BBC television presentation of elf-themed rock music, back in that subgenre’s heyday (at least in a relative sense). Unlike a lot of the band’s repertoire, this was not an old Child ballad with electric guitars, but an English translation of an old Danish ballad (“Eline af Villenskov”) with electric guitars. Some sources say “seven hundred trolls” would be a better translation of the Danish than “seven hundred elves.”

    Around 22 seconds in, you can see the owner of the stately country house where the gig is taking place, the Viscount De L’Isle. Who looks like just another curmudgeonly old well-dressed gent who is rather dubious about hippies and electric guitars. Although it turns out he’d probably seen even worse things than the Young People’s music and fashions of 1974, on account of three decades previously having won the Victoria Cross for “superb courage and utter disregard of danger in the action near Carroceto, in the Anzio Beach Head.”–gpp4K-AbU

  21. J.W. Brewer: Nice. A favourite of mine for many years. Great presentation.

    I have a book of Danish ballads, many of which are very interesting. However, it would be difficult to perform them because although the original Danish ballads are traditional, the translations in the book are modern, hence copyrighted.

    Here’s another song about elves with electric guitars. Not from the same era as yours, because there doesn’t seem to be any live film of the original, but at any rate it’s the survivors of those days.

  22. PlasticPaddy says
    Music and singing is good, I am not so sure about the voiceover…

  23. I can highly recommend Alaric Hall’s [i]Elves in Anglo-Saxon England[/i] (Woodbridge 2007) on the background ( ; for those without online access the earlier PhD version is available at Glasgow University).

    @PlasticPaddy the /l/ in Aelfric would most likely have been sounded and not vocalised in most Old English dialects. There is no relationship to the Irish name Aifric. That name itself is interesting. From the basis of the early attestations, it looks very much like a borrowing of Latin Africa, and most of the forms right into the mid-20th century in Ireland are recognisable variants of this. There is no St Africa I know of, but a few saints Africanus or with the epithet Africana. But I am doubtful these kind of forms are the source of the personal name.

    The name Aithbhreac is attested widely in Gaelic-speaking Scotland from the late medieval period onwards (though most modern variants are along the lines Oighrig, Eighrig (sometimes dialectically pronounced with /f/, despite the spelling), often Anglicised Effie. The etymology of the name is something like “very freckled”, nothing to do with reproaches or heaps. Despite the apparent coincidence in pronunciation I think this name is etymologically distinct from OIr and MIr Affraic, and indeed distinct from the placename Glen Affric, principally because of the forms in the early written attestations – though a couple of Scottish academics in the 60s thought they were the same name.

  24. PlasticPaddy says

    Thanks. In Irish you have aghaidh-dhána = bold-faced [English calque?] so maybe aghaidh-bhreac = freckle-faced. But I agree this would be unconnected with Aifric.

  25. marie-lucie says

    Mark: “There is no St Africa”

    But there is a Saint-Affrique in Southern France, a small town named after a local (male) saint. According to the local tradition:

    “In the 5th century AD, the Arian Wisigoths ((hen ruling the region)) persecuted the Catholic communities and denied them access to the churches. Africanus, a bishop, was expelled from his seat near the Pyrénées and had to flee. The local legend says that Africanus ended his exile in a hamlet near the Sorgues river and evangelized the inhabitants. He also performed numerous miracles.

    The bishop’s name is alleged to originate in the language of the Wisigoths, especially in the root Affric or Effric, meaning “powerful and terrifying” (cf Fr ‘affreux’). The name Saint-Affrique ((for the town)) is attested from the year 942 in the archives of another monastery or bishopric.”

    “Africanus” then would have been the early Latinized form of Affric. The exact spelling of the name in the 942 archives is not given in the text from which I learned this information.

    Could “Affric” be cognate with the similar names in ancient Britain, a Celtic rather than a Germanic one (since the saint cannot have been a Wisigoth himself).

  26. Martin Langeveld says

    Back to impfen for a moment: the Dutch verb for inoculating is “inenten” (again with -en forming the infinitive). The Dutch for “to graft” is enten. Wiktionary says the etymology of enten is “From Old Danish ænting, æntig, from Old Norse annattveggja, cognate with Norwegian Nynorsk anten, Swedish antingen. A compound of annat (“other, either”, neuter) and tveggja (“two”, genitive).” (Antingen looks like antigen, but it means “either.”)

    So, two adjoining countries, two Germanic languages, the same formation from words for “graft” to words for “inoculate,” but in Dutch it comes from a Nordic root, and in German from a Greek by way of Latin root.

  27. J.W. Brewer says

    @maidhc: Do you know who the woman singing w/ FC in the clip you posted is? I read on the internet that the since-deceased Judy Dyble sat in for a few numbers that year, but that doesn’t look like her.

  28. J.W. Brewer

    It is Chris While. Judy Dyble did sing at the same performance.

    The set list is here.

  29. maybe aghaidh-bhreac = freckle-faced

    I think Mark is implying aith-breac “very-speckled.”

  30. PlasticPaddy says

    I thought no one might be interested, but I do not understand aithbhreac if it is postulated for AD 700. Analogous forms in the eDIL are aithgér and aithglicc, i.e. g, not gh. With the other meaning for the prefix there is aithbreth, again b not bh.

  31. Kate Bunting says

    Jeffry House said:
    To Imp: “ to repair a damaged feather in (the wing or tail of a trained hawk) by attaching part of a new feather.”

    Which is the sense in which George Herbert used it in “Easter Wings”, as I mentioned above.

  32. @Plastic Paddy: You’ve got me there. I know all stages of Irish equally superficially. But I thought that aith- is from *ate-, so I’d expect it to lenite. are there two aith’s?

  33. I thought no one might be interested, but I do not understand aithbhreac if it is postulated for AD 700. Analogous forms in the eDIL are aithgér and aithglicc, i.e. g, not gh. With the other meaning for the prefix there is aithbreth, again b not bh.

    Early Irish does not consistently distinguish lenited forms in writing. In the entry for aithgér, for example, there are three forms with -g- and four with -gh-. Rodger C is correct that aith- is leniting; see Thurneysen §235.E. “The second element of a compound is lenited […] 3. After the prepositions aith ath […].” Readers would have known to pronounce the written consonant as lenited, just as they would have known to pronounce the unwritten -h- in, e.g., ro-ic(c) /roˈhig/.

  34. PlasticPaddy says

    Thanks. I was confused by implicit lenition in the headwords and explicit lenition in declined forms in eDIL.

  35. The first etymology is unusual (unless there is a Latin saint Afric or Africa)

    África is an unusual-but-not-extraordinary female name in Spain and Mexico these days, but the oldest uses I can find are all from the early 20th century, and typically given to children born in the Spanish colonies. No likelihood of continuity there.

    (The best-known of these is probably África de las Heras, famous as a senior KGB spy, but probably of more interest to the LH readership as quondam wife to the extraordinary Uruguayan writer Felisberto Hernández.)

  36. David Marjanović says

    Impfstoff is currently my favorite German noun.

    I see your Impfstoff and raise you Impfpflicht “vaccination mandate”.

    (…widely pronounced Impflicht north of the White-Sausage Equator, because they can’t actually deal with syllable-initial pf over here. I’ve even seen it spelled like that.)

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