As I learn from MetaFilter, tomorrow is the first Gray Day, “a celebration of the writer and artist Alasdair Gray, on the 40th anniversary of his masterpiece Lanark”; there will be a free hour-long Gray Day Broadcast that will feature Ali Smith, Yann Martel, Alan Cumming, Denise Mina, Irvine Welsh, and many others, and if you don’t want to wait you can hear the author read the Epilogue to Lanark (n.b.: the Epilogue doesn’t come at the end of the book). Gray is one of those writers I know I’ll like, but I still haven’t gotten around to him; I can, however, add my mite by contributing the etymology of the wonderful place name Unthank, which features in Lanark (as “a strange Glasgow-like city in which there is no daylight and whose disappearing residents suffer from strange diseases”). It is, according to A Dictionary of British Place Names by A. D. Mills, “‘(Land held) without consent’, i.e. ‘a squatter’s holding’. OE. unthanc.” And the OED has an entry (from 1926) for unthank:

Etymology: Old English unþanc (masculine) (< un- un- prefix¹ 6 + þanc thank n.), = Old Frisian unthonk (West Frisian ontank, North Frisian untoonk), Middle Dutch ondanc (Dutch ondank), Middle Low German undank, Old High German undanch, unthank (Middle High German undanc, German undank) ingratitude, displeasure, etc.; Old Norse úþökk (feminine), a reproach, censure, etc. (Middle Swedish othak, Swedish otack, Middle Danish and Danish utak ingratitude, etc.).

I. Senses relating to disfavour or displeasure.
a. Absence of gratitude or good-will; unfavourable thought or feeling; ill-will, disfavour; displeasure expressed in actions or words.
c893 tr. Orosius Hist. iv. x. §11 Þa wæs Hannibale æfter hiera hæðeniscum gewunan þæt and wyrde swiþe lað, & him unþanc sæde þæs and wyrdes.
c1405 (▸c1390) G. Chaucer Reeve’s Tale (Hengwrt) (2003) l. 162 Vnthank come on his hand þt boond hym so.
1557 Earl of Surrey et al. Songes & Sonettes sig. Bb.iᵛ Vnthanke to our desert be geuen, Which merite not a heauens gift to kepe.

b. In the phrase to have unthank.
c1325 in Wright Pol. Songs (Camden) 327 But unthank have the bishop that lat hit so go.
c1400 (▸?c1380) Cleanness (1920) l. 183 For þeft, & for þrepyng, vnþonk may mon haue.

2. An act or circumstance causing displeasure or annoyance; an offence or injury.
c897 K. Ælfred tr. Gregory Pastoral Care xlix. 379 And ða forðyðe he forwandode ðæt he swa ne dyde, ða ageaf he hit [sc. ðæt feoh] to unðances.
13.. Guy of Warw. 5311 His brond..brac vnto his hond. ‘Allas,’ quaþ Gij, ‘þis vnþang! Were no may y me nouȝt lang’.

II. Senses relating to disinclination, reluctance, or involuntariness.
a. In genitive, used adverbially, = Unwillingly; compulsorily; against a person’s wish or will; without one’s consent; also, involuntarily.
The genitive is similarly used in Old Frisian, Middle Dutch, Old High German, etc.
c960 Canons of Edgar in B. Thorpe Anc. Laws Eng. (1840) I. 264 Niman [hi] unþances þone teoðan dæl to þam mynstre.
?1066 Anglo-Saxon Chron. (MS. C) ann. 1066 Tostig..nam of þam butse karlon sume mid him, sume þances, sume unþances.
a1300 Cursor Mundi 27192 [It] sceus quat nede Was man at drau him to þis dede,..Quar vnthankes [Fairf. queþer vnþankis] or wit will, And quatkin strengh him draf þer-till.

b. More frequently with possessive adjective (or noun in possessive case).
c893 tr. Orosius Hist. ii. ii. §1 Hi swaþeah heora unðances mid swicdome hie begeaton.
c1100 Anglo-Saxon Chron. (MS. D) ann. 905 Þa gerad Æþelwold æðeling..þone ham æt Winburnan & æt Tweoxnam þæs cynges unþances.
a1470 J. Hardyng Chron. l. iv Kyng Edward with long shankes Brought it awaye again, the Scottes vnthankes.
a1470 J. Hardyng Chron. lxviii. ii Vpon the north sea bankes, He faught with theim in battaill their vnthankes.

c. Without inflection in absolute use.
a1225 Juliana 36 He schal unþonc in his teð cuðen þe þat tu wilnest. [Cf. tooth n. Phrases 2.]
1338 R. Mannyng Chron. (1810) 241 Þe Walsch com þam ageyn, did our men alle arere, Þat turnyng þer vnthank, as heuy was þe charge, Vnder þam alle sank.

4. at one’s unthanks, against one’s will.
a1400–50 Alexander 4698 Forþi enhabete ȝe in angwysch at ȝoure vnthankis.
c1420 Anturs of Arth. 424 Or he weldene my landes, at myne vn-thankes. By alle þe welthe of this werlde, he salle þame neuer welde.

I think it’s a fine old word that should be revived.


  1. It’s a surname too, as I learned via the fine British folk band The Unthanks (“If they were looking for a cool stage name, do you think they’d have chosen Unthank?”).

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    “a strange Glasgow-like city in which there is no daylight and whose disappearing residents suffer from strange diseases”

    How is this to be distinguished from “Glasgow”?

  3. Jen in Edinburgh says

    There’s an actual Unthank close to the border somewhere – I think just into Northumberland, but maybe this side.

  4. DE: I await your commentary on Mannyng’s “Þe Walsch com þam ageyn, did our men alle arere, Þat turnyng þer vnthank, as heuy was þe charge, Vnder þam alle sank.”

  5. David Marjanović says

    Undank ist der Welten Lohn “no good deed goes unpunished”.

  6. Trond Engen says

    Utakk er verdens lønn here in the calquosphere.

    I say uttak er verdens lønn “withdrawal (from the account) is the salary of the world” as often as I have occasion. For some reason the children of the house consider it a dad joke.

  7. John Emerson says

    In Portland here there’s an Unthank Park named after an eminent black doctor. I cannot imagine how Unthank might have become a family name.



  8. David Marjanović says

    Is that world unambiguously singular? Because in German it’s unambiguously plural these days, but may well not have been in earlier times, as only occurred to me today.

    (There are lots of feminine nouns that go sg. -e, pl. -en in the standard today, but went nom. sg. -e, everything else -en maybe just 200 years ago. The Bavarian dialects have extended the syllabic nasal to the nom. sg., but not in this word…)

  9. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I cannot imagine how Unthank might have become a family name.

    The same way other farm and village names did, I expect – the one I was thinking of turns out to be further into Northumberland (it was Upsettlington by the border that I once went through just for the name), but there are a few more scattered about.

  10. Trond Engen says

    Unambiguously singular, but still grammatically odd due to a botched borrowing from Danish.

    Verden incorporates the masculine definite article acquired through the Danish common gender. Hele verden “the whole world” is a definite phrase that would otherwise demand a definite noun, showing that it’s something like a definite tantum. En verden “a/one world” is indefinite but still incorporates the masculine definite article. Mange verdener “many worlds” does the same in plural.

    But I have recently seen examples of definite (i hele) verdenen, levelling the paradigm.

    Native verd – verda f. still lingers on in Nynorsk and dialects.

  11. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    There seem to be two Unthanks, not all that that far apart, both within shouting distance of Carlisle.

    “a strange Glasgow-like city in which there is no daylight and whose disappearing residents suffer from strange diseases”

    How is this to be distinguished from “Glasgow”?

    I’ve not spent a lot of time in Glasgow, but when I went there for a meeting once I found it much less unpleasant than I expected.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s Miles Better. (Sorry: a civic improvement program slogan from the Dark Ages. It is actually true, though. But I’m old enough to remember the Good Old Days.)

    Having said that, Glasgow residents die years earlier on average than other UK-ites even after allowing for all conceivable variables like smoking, poverty, fried-Mars-Bar intake, you name it. I’m just hoping I got away in time.

    “Much less unpleasant than I expected” would be a great TripAdvisor review.

  13. Trond Engen says

    My wife and I spent a very pleasant long weekend in Glasgow ten-or-so years ago. Apart from that I’ve been there exactly twice The first time I was changing trains on my way from Prestwick to Edinburgh. The second time was three days later, changing trains on my way from Edinburgh to Prestwick.

  14. Lars (the other one) says

    Trond said “Unambiguously singular, but still grammatically odd due to a botched borrowing from Danish.”

    Not a botched borrowing though, more like an (old) reanalysis. Standard in Danish as well. Swedish has värld.

  15. Lars Mathiesen says

    I spent a week in Glasgow for the 1995 Worldcon, but we quickly gave up on ordering beer from the natives. Also we were told that there was a local derby on the weekend and leaving the University grounds without one of the team colours was strongly advised against. (As was going downtown with one of them, unless you were in a group of 100 natives).

    Verdenen is actually attested in older Danish, ODS has quotes from Grundtvig and Kierkegaard, but normatively both definite and indefinite is verden.

  16. Trond Engen says

    Incomplete reanalysis in Danish. But you’re right. Maybe it’s not any more botched in (Dano-)Norwegian than in Danish,

  17. One of the major roads in Norwich, Norfolk is the Unthank Road, named after a prominent local family. Apparently William Unthank arrived in Norwich from Durham in the 18th century, and was the son of Robert Unthank from Unthank village in Northumberland.


  18. I spent about four hours in Glasgow few years ago, with the sole purpose to take a ride in the dwarfish cars of its weird subway. As it happened, the whole subway was closed. So for me, much more upsetting than expected.

  19. David Marjanović says

    The Hunterian Museum is great, and getting there on the weird subway wasn’t bad either. But weird.

  20. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I like Glasgow, despite tradition. I lived there for a few years, and although I prefer Edinburgh now, I’m glad I did.

    a strange Glasgow-like city in which there is no daylight

    This is vaguely reminding me of some awful Victorian thing I had to read (or at least was supposed to read) at university. Somebody Thompson? I think it might have been one of the things you couldn’t get as a proper book and had to buy from them as a photocopy.

  21. >The same way other farm and village names did

    Wiki shows 10 villages of Unthank in England, including one in Yorkshire that was abandoned in the 1800s.

    Here’s an early Unthank — Joseph, who emigrated to America from his native Yorkshire (born “circa 1735”, though this is in tension with the record of his son John, born in Bucks Co. PA in 1741.):

    Both Joseph and John wound up in Guilford County, North Carolina.

    Dr. DeNorval Unthank, the African American doctor who John mentioned, was the son of Albion Tourgee Unthank. It’s not easy to trace earlier than that (for me – I’m sure someone has). But it’s interesting that Albion Tourgee (ie, not Mr. Unthank, but the person who his parents must have named him for) was a white Civil War veteran involved in Republican politics during Reconstruction. He’s known as the lawyer on the losing side of Plessy vs. Ferguson, attempting to uphold equal and desegregated public education for black people.

    More relevant, after the war, he had moved to Guilford Co. NC, and founded Bennett College, a school for freedmen in the county seat – Greensboro. Albion Tourgee Upthank would have been born too early to be named for the famous attorney of Plessy vs. Ferguson, so it was almost certainly some interaction in Guilford Co. (might his father have attended Bennett College) that led to his given name.

    It seems quite conceivable that this white Unthank family that moved from Yorkshire to Bucks Co. to Guilford Co. is the very slaveholder family from whom the African American Dr. Unthank got his surname, via a father freed by the war and attending the school founded by Tourgee.

    In that context, the name Unthank has interesting resonance.

  22. Sorry. I got Plessy vs. Ferguson’s substance confused with that of the case that overturned it, Brown vs. Board of Education. Plessy wasn’t about separate but equal education, but rather separate but equal accommodations on a train, with broader implications ensuing from the precedent.

  23. Rachel Unthank, from a famous family of English folk singers:

  24. The latest Oxford Dictionary of Place Names suggests “unthakful land” in addition to “land held without consent”. All the Unthanks in Wikipedia are small hamlets, some abandoned, which suggests they were not good for farming. I guess they were good places to be from but then leave.

  25. Jen in Edinburgh says

    The ‘awful Victorian thing’ turns out to be The City of Dreadful Night. Not necessarily awful as in badly written, but…

    (Wikipedia thinks it’s about London, though.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    I rather like The City of Dreadful Night. You have to be in the right mood for it, admittedly …

    It’s got a bit of the over-the-topness of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner about it. (It continues to amaze me that people take TROTAM seriously, excellent poem though it is in its way.)

  27. John Emerson says

    When David mentioned TROTAM it got me thinking of Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. I read this when I was about 12 and loved it, but was disappointed when it ended so abruptly and hoped that the conclusion would be found.

    America started as a maritime nation And a lot of the early literature was of the sea — Melville, Dana, early Cooper, some of Washington Irving I think, and this story by Poe. Even Twain’s first book had a section on Hawai’i.

  28. Yes, it’s funny to think how we’ve closed in over the last century or so, even as we’ve supposedly gotten all globalized. I get the sense that 19th-century Americans, for all their bumptious boosterism, were far more interested in other places than their descendants. (Why can I never spell “descendants” right on the first try?)

  29. It probably has something to do with going from being a place that was the new kid on the block in world politics and whose elites still looked for cultural guidance to the old continent, to being the pre-emiment superpower and the place that supplies culture (for better or for worse) to the rest of the world.

  30. Yeah, that’s definitely a major factor. Depressing, though. There shouldn’t be any superpowers.

  31. It was illuminating to me to realize that The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was just a fancy way of saying “the poem about the old sailor”.
    I love Coleridge, but the first time I read TROTAM through and appreciated it was an illustrated comic version by the great cartoonist Hunt Emerson (with a snarky introduction by Gilbert Shelton). He turned it into non-stop slapstick, still somehow not hiding its gravity.

  32. David Eddyshaw says

    “Unhand me, grey-beard loon!” are some of the most memorable words in English literature. Also, my children seem to find the words applicable in contexts where I myself do not see the immediate relevance.

    The Rime is (seriously) one of the comparatively few poems that you find that you remember huge chunks of whether you want to or not. “Perversely memorable” as someone (I forget who) said of Tennyson’s Maud.

    Such poems are not always among the greatest of poems by normal criteria, but any poet who can do that is worthy of respect. (Kipling is another.)

  33. I suspect America’s turn inward is very much connected to America literally turning inward. As John E said, the United States was originally very much a maritime nation, with much of the population huddled on the coast, making a living off fishing and whaling and trade with the Caribbean, Africa, and the Mother Country. Then we expanded westward, turned into a country of farmers living far from the ocean, built up our own industrial capacity, stopped whaling and slaving and stopped caring that much about the outside world. Melville and Poe always seemed surprisingly cosmopolitan to me compared to later American writers.

  34. David Eddyshaw says

    Siberian Yupik took its older European loanwords predominantly from English (because American whalers), whereas Central Alaskan Yup’ik took its older European loans from Russian (because Cossacks.)

  35. In the period of time for which you’re describing the population as huddled on the coast, making a living off fishing, whaling and trade, the days of Poe, Melville and Dana, the population went from 5.1% urban (1790) to 10.8% urban (1840.) It was overwhelmingly a nation of farmers and other workers in agriculture. About 15% of the population was enslaved in 1850.

  36. Note that farmers may also be fishers.

  37. As a minor footnote, sure.

    Or are you really trying to keep alive the idea that the early US was a country of whalers, fishermen and traders?

  38. John Emerson says

    A lot of the agricultural economy was for export, though, especially tobacco.

    In 9th grade history we learned about the importance of Carolina indigo. I doubt that anyone in the class knew what either the plant nor the color indigo was

  39. John Emerson says

    Also ginseng. America exported ginseng to China before the revolution. Ginseng is still the main product of one Wisconsin county.

    Colonial America did have a lot of farmers, but one of the lessons of history is that no one gives a shit about farmers.

  40. Tolkien named Saruman’s tower “Orthanc” after an Old English word that looks a bit similar, but the thing is, here the -thanc meant think, not thank. I think.


    update – wait… are “thank” and “think” basically the same word? I might have to lie down.

  41. David Marjanović says

    are “thank” and “think” basically the same word?

    Yes, and I had the same reaction when I read about that a few years ago.

  42. OED: thank, n.

    Etymology: Old English þanc, þǫnc = Old Frisian thonk, Old Saxon *thank (Middle Dutch danc, Dutch dank), Old High German, Middle High German danc (German dank), Old Norse þökk (< þanku feminine), Swedish tack, Danish tak, Gothic þagks < Old Germanic *þankoz, < ablaut stem þenk : þank : þunk : see think v.2 The primary sense was therefore thought.

    The verb is denominative.

  43. John Emerson says

    “Thing” and “think” ARE etymologically related.

  44. No, thing is “probably ultimately < an extended form of the Indo-European base of classical Latin tempus time.” Unless you’re going the Dravidian route.

  45. It was illuminating to me to realize that The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was just a fancy way of saying “the poem about the old sailor”.

    Wordsworth and Coleridge used to refer to it as “The Old Navigator.”

  46. John Emerson says

    Not from thingen?

  47. The best way to settle the etymological question here would be to convene a representative group of us to consider it.

    We could call it the Althing.

  48. David Marjanović says

    “Thing” and “think” ARE etymologically related.

    You’ve got another thin{g|k} coming.

  49. “The Old Navigator.”

    At least one German translation kills all the deliberate archaism (“The Rime of the Ancyient Marinere”) and calls it “Die Alte Matrose”. Instant bathos.

    You’ve got another thin{g|k} coming.

    I have always wondered, as a think-coming speaker, just what sort of dreadful Thing the other camp is anticipating.

    Tolkien named Saruman’s tower “Orthanc” after an Old English word that looks a bit similar

    Entirely similar, but only partly derived from it. He himself says in The Two Towers that Orthanc “had (by design or chance) a two-fold meaning; for in the Elvish [i.e. Sindarin] speech orthanc signifies Mount Fang, but in the language of the Mark of old the Cunning Mind.” More literally it is < or-thanc ‘above-forked’, and that is indeed how it appears in his painting, with four turrets at the corners extending above the open level where Gandalf stood to be rescued by the Eagle.

    Tolkien often speaks “philologically” about alleged coincidences like this. For example, he tells us that after the first rising of the Sun, the Elves reckoned time by a period of 144 solar years (suitable for their longevity), and that this period was divided into six-day weeks. Each weekday had a Quenya name memorializing the Stars, the Sun, the Moon, the Two Trees, the Heavens, and the Valar (angels, Powers). Men took over this system, but “desiring a seventh day and being great mariners”, added a new day after the fifth day, named for the Sea. These names were eventually translated into the Common Speech, and by the time of the War of the Ring they had become in the Shire-calendar Sterday, Sunday, Monday, Trewsday, He(ve)nsday, Mersday, Highday! All of which is a total coincidence. Of course.

  50. “Die Alte Matrose”
    Nitpick: it’s der Matrose

  51. Stu Clayton says

    You’ve got another thin{g|k} coming.

    Free association also calls to mind:

    Das kann ich ihm nicht verdenken

    Das habe ich ihm zu verdanken

    What is this all about ?

  52. der Matrose

    Of course. Anglophones have had the privilege of getting gender wrong since 1468 with Le Mort Darthur.

  53. David Eddyshaw says

    Morgan le Fay was particularly cross. And she’s not a lady you want particularly cross at you.

  54. David Marjanović says

    Le Morte, I thought?

  55. John Cowan says

    It varied with the edition, I believe.

  56. Andre Unthank says

    Ryan, yes. Dr. Thomas Unthank and Dr. DeNorval Unthank got their surname from a family that had slaves. Harmon Unthank named his son after Albion Tourgee. I recommend that you do some research on Warnersville, NC to learn more. Harmon Unthank and Albion Tourgee were close and both worked together for land ownership rights and equal education for Blacks.

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