Lost Old English Words.

Courtesy of JC, this enjoyable Wikipedia page features Old English words that did not survive into Modern English (although they really mean Standard Modern English, since a number survive in dialects, e.g. Old English āðexe ‘lizard’ survives as “rare/dialectal ask“). It’s divided into sections (Animals, Body parts, Colours, Other words); herewith one entry from each:

dūfedoppa: ‘pelican’.
earsgang: ‘anus’ (literally arse-exit).
weolucbasu: ‘purple’. Literally ‘whelk-purple’.
hæmed, liger: ‘sex’.

(Cf. “we’ll get ’em all back.”) Thanks, John!


  1. PlasticPaddy says
  2. (I’m off to my sister-in-law’s for Thanksgiving dinner, so if anyone gets stuck in moderation hell, I’m afraid it won’t get resolved until this evening. Sorry about that!)

  3. I love that in a normal Anglo-Saxon development, something that one might have expected to compress from adexe to ax = aks, instead became ask.

    People who complain about AAVE formations would be head-spinning. Except that they’ll never see anything like this.

    Happy Thanksgiving.

  4. Were there pelicans in Anglo-Saxon lands? Or at least why/how did anybody need a word for them?

  5. I had the same thought about pelicans. The great white pelican apparently breeds today in Dalmatia and on the Black Sea, and it’s likely their range was much larger 10 centuries ago.

  6. PlasticPaddy says

    Re dufedoppa: this seems to be a scribe’s best guess at the word for a (to him unknown) bird pellicanus in a Latin psalm text. Another scribe suggested dog’s pelt so it could have been worse. Roger Lass has a 1997 monograph published by CUP which has a full discussion of the glosses and the corresponding English birds.

  7. I would mildly disagree with:

    “getæl: ‘number’. A combination of the prefix ge- and tæl. Besides the phrase “to tell time”,[4] it mainly survived in English with meanings related to speech (‘tell’, ‘tale’). Meanings related to numbers can be found in several Germanic cognates. Compare with English teller, German Zahl, Dutch getal, Swedish and Danish tal and Norwegian tall. (See worn.)”

    I think there are enough survivals of “tell” meaning “count” still around to make it easily understandable to modern English speakers. The phrases “all told” and “untold numbers of…” are still pretty common, as are (as the entry notes) “tell time” and “teller”. And what about telling things apart one from another? That sense is much closer to the sense of counting than it is to speech.

  8. The “Commented-On Language Hat Posts” page went wonky this morning and is being rebuilt from scratch now. Because it’s U.S. Thanksgiving, the process got delayed, and then it aborted and had to be restarted. But it should be up again in a few hours. (It’s a big job because it has to download all the index and content pages.)

  9. Oh. And this is post #7100! (A side effect of the rebuild process is finding out exactly how many posts there are.)

    Were there pelicans in Anglo-Saxon lands? Or at least why/how did anybody need a word for them?

    The pelican was thought to be a type of Christ, because in the bestiaries it fed its children on its own blood by tearing its chest or side open with its beak. So pelicans were known at least by name even in the pelican-free parts of Christendom.

  10. The pelican was thought to be a type of Christ
    Surely Christ was a type of pelican. This is not ‘chicken & egg’.

  11. David Marjanović says

    The phrases “all told” and “untold numbers of…” are still pretty common

    Sure, but I always interpreted them as “when all is said [and done]” and “unheard-of numbers”. And that’s with growing up with not only zählen “count”, but also erzählen “tell a storry, narrate, recount”. And with finding out about tally pretty soon.

    And what about telling things apart one from another? That sense is much closer to the sense of counting than it is to speech.

    Not to me – if you can tell things apart, you’re aware enough of the difference that you can articulate it.

  12. Jen in Edinburgh says

    ‘Teller’ and ‘tally’ are the only consciously numerical ones for me.

    The only word from the list that jumped out at me as still alive is ōcusta/oxter (possibly pronounced oaxter), which is one of those Scots words that wanders into Scottish English.

  13. PlasticPaddy says

    The most clearcut example is “telling the beads”, although I do not know if this is still current. In “tell things apart” I do not think “tell” is used in the sense of counting, there is another sense of divination or mental process involving both logic and intuition, compare fortune-telling.

  14. In any case, the item in the list is getæl ‘number.’ The verb is a different word and thus irrelevant.

  15. Nelson Goering says

    To focus in on the really important things, ears-gang isn’t so much ‘arse-exit’ as ‘arse-passage’ or ‘arse-way’ (OE gang was not terribly different from German Gang, and had no particular sense of going _out_ specifically – you would use a compound like ūt-gang, = Ausgang, for that).

  16. Hermann Rockefeller says

    ūt-gang, = Ausgang
    Ausgang = utgang (Norwegian)

  17. This article in British Birds has Dalmatian pelicans breeding in “northwest Europe including Britain” in the seventeenth century, though he refers that to an unpublished dissertation and I haven’t found other support for it. In facr, other sources talk about northern populations during warmer periods of the holocene. A little ice age population would run counter to that idea.

    (I can’t seem to get the url now because of the way my tablet reopens PDFs.)

  18. I presume you mean John R. Stewart, “Wetland birds in the recent fossil record of Britain and northwest Europe” (British Birds 97 [Jan. 2004], 27-32); the full text is available here.

  19. Yes, thanks. The first time I open a PDF in my tablet, it opens a webpage with the address, but thereafter, it says “do you want to re-download …” and just pops it open in a PDF window. I guess I could have edited a google link, but that too is annoying on a tablet. I’m a pretty committed laptop person. Tablets are tough enough. I don’t know how people participate in text-based forums like this from a phone, though some do.

    The Lass monograph that PlasticPaddy mentioned has persuaded me that even if there were a few local populations of pelicans across northern Europe at varying times and places, that they weren’t long-lasting or widespread enough, in the common era, to demand a proper name. And that diving dove is unlikely to have been a real, vernacular term for them.

  20. I’m a pretty committed laptop person.

    Same here. My brother uses an iPhone for all his computing needs, which I find incomprehensible.

  21. Trond Engen says

    I do serious reading, research and long comments with lots of links and formating on my laptop. I can read comments and write short simple comments (like this) on my phone.

    My kids are different. My wife too, but different different. She hates doing anything on the phone. She’s just coming around to writing a text message if I can’t answer her call.

  22. Google has an app that allows you to use handwriting. You write with your index finger on about one-third of the screen. I use it all the time now for the phone. It’s less cramped than thumb-typing is. Your wife might like it.

  23. Surely Christ was a type of pelican.

    Perhaps he was. But one thing he is not is the type specimen of Pelecanus onocrotalus, the specimen which by definition belongs to that species no matter how much the exact definition changes around it.

    possibly pronounced oaxter

    The Dictionar o the Scots Leid says it is. But it probably came up over the Border from Northumbria long ago, because it’s also been in use Oop North. At the other end, it spread from Ulster Scots to at least some varieties of Hiberno-English.

    There is also a verb oxter, defined by the OED as ‘support by the arm, walk arm in arm with; take or carry under the arm; to embrace, put one’s arm around.’ The DSL has a good deal more, including oxteration ‘(jocular) cuddling, embracing, love-making’; oxter-deep ‘(of water) deep enough to wade in up to the oxters’, come wi a crookit oxter ‘come with a gift in one’s arms; fig. a dowry’, and wi one’s heid under his oxter ‘with a downcast drooping air’. The last reminds me of the Irish giant who swam the English Channel with his head in his teeth.

  24. For the most relevant-in-context sense of “type,” the pelican is a type of Christ, not vice versa. (In the symbolic correspondence between the two, Christ is rather the antitype/ἀντίτυπος.)

  25. Are pelicans really that greasy?

  26. David Marjanović says

    Why greasy?

  27. Christos sounds a lot less numinous if you translate it as “the greased up one.”

  28. # After rejecting the names “Krispo” and “Cryst” (the latter for obvious religious connotations), the product was eventually called Crisco, a modification of the phrase “crystallized cottonseed oil”.[1] #

    The story of how Procter & Gamble successfully demonized lard

    # P&G also had the brilliant idea of presenting Crisco to the Jewish housewife as a kosher food, one that behaved like butter but could be used with meats. Because it made kosher cooking easier, Jews adopted Crisco and margarine—imitation lard and imitation butter—more quickly than other groups, with unforeseen consequences. #

  29. David Marjanović says


    Jesus H. Tapdancing Christ on a cracker!

    Or in one.

  30. Stu Clayton says

    As I remember Crisco, it was not “crystallized” but rather, I would guess, emulsified and whipped up with air. Will anyone report from the home front ? I haven’t laid eyes on it in 50+ years. Didn’t it figure in Cities of Night ?

  31. I used Crisco this week for apple and pumpkin pie crusts. It’s not whipped up with air. It’s thick and buttery.

  32. Doris, my uncle’s mother in law, whom we used to see at Thanksgiving, was adamant about using butter-flavored Crisco in her pie crusts. She is deceased, but her recipes are still in use, although I don’t know whether the pumpkin pie I ate on Thursday had a butter-flavored Crisco crust or not.

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