From the Book of Kells, c 800 AD, Folio 290v. Symbol of St John the Evangelist.

Anfloga & Wearn
also (h)wælweg
and brief notes on hyge and gielleð

anfloga: further notes: October 2009

A number of matters, arising in discussion, prompt renewed efforts to address the meaning of anfloga, a word used only once in the corpus of extant Anglo-Saxon literature. While expressing a belief that the significant sense of a hapax legomenon, such as this, can be discovered by analysing the context of its usage, and comparing it with living cognates in the languages still relatively closely related to the dead one, I was incidentally asked for my opinion of the Dictionary of Old English. Quote: "Charles, what's your assessment of the Dictionary of Old English being written at U. Toronto?" My reaction was that I'd have to take a look at it, and I therefore paid $75 in order to gain a year's access to the fascicles A to G, so far provided online. I preceded this with, quote: "Whatever I might have to say would naturally only be very limited and restricted to a few points concerning specific definitions." This was followed, 9/10/09, by, quote: "I strongly query the definition of 'anfloga' as 'solitary flier'. Others, notably Smithers, have disagreed with that definition, and I wonder if the DOE admits alternative readings."

The DOE defines anfloga as follows: "1 occ. (in poetry) solitary flier, lonely flier; a bird (perh. used figuratively for the human soul)". A fairly lengthy, and eventually somewhat unpleasantly heated discussion ensued. My main point, or one of my main points, was that by providing this very limited definition, quote: "I just feel it is a great pity if 'anfloga' continues to be defined exclusively as 'solitary flier', as, imho, this definition will continue to misdirect students and future translators for generations to come." I would here add that the opinion expressed by the DOE, mainly in brackets --- "a bird (perh. used figuratively for the human soul)" --- seems to me distinctly pre-emptive. See here, for interest.

Is it strictly in accordance with the DOE's professed lexicographical principles to offer an interpretative judgement of this kind? Quote: " .... the DOE entry is fine. It simply cannot use either your or Gordon's interpretation of the poem as a source of lexicographical matter, because, or so it seems to me, they both depart from the Dictionary's principles of assigning meaning." A further remark stated, quote: "the lexicographer is not free to choose your reading (or mine) of the word ahead of someone else's interpretation of it". This is an unusually opaque assertion, and doesn't appear to carry any meaning at all. The DOE does not indeed use either my or Gordon's definition. It does, however, quite certainly and arbitrarily feel free to make use of the definition provided by others, and assigns meaning. Unlike Bosworth-Toller, the DOE gives no definition for floga. It does give definitions for geflog: "infectious disease"; and flyge: "flight, action or power of flying (with or as with wings)"; and "of projectiles". It therefore does not seem as if floga, or anfloga, need be a bird, or a human soul for that matter. There is absolutely no lexicographical reason for defining it as either.

None of the half-dozen contributors to the discussion voiced any agreement with me on this matter. Their objections, however, did not seem to me to address the points I was making in a fully convincing manner, and some of the counter-arguments seemed to me somewhat illogical and improperly founded, if not directly underhand. Other contributors tackled the topic reasonably seriously. Further notes below; mainly concerned with possible interpretations of the prefix an-.

"There may be wisdom in a multitude of counsellors, but it is only in one or two of them." Thomas Huxley

notes on anfloga

St John the Evangelist
Book of Armagh, c 807 AD

Bible of St Bénigne,
Bibliothèque Publique, Dijon

From Wright's Old English Grammar, 3rd edition, 1925


Book of Kells; Folio 27v.

One of the more serious, well-adjusted and better-tempered debaters directed me to Wright's Old English Grammar, excerpts from which are scanned in above. On either side are representations of the symbol of St John the Evangelist, which accompany biblical texts in Latin. These illuminations would appear to be more or less contemporary (within perhaps fifty years or so) with the composition of The Seafarer. Surmounting them is a far more ancient visualization of the bird of death, carrying the shen, the ring of etermity.

Wright had crossed my desk some extended period earlier, but since his list of examples was so limited, it had not seemed to me particularly apt. The debate indicates that his examples need closer examination. It is a pity that his list of word-formations with the prefixes an- and on- includes neither anfloga nor onflyge; but he makes other points worth noting.

One of these, although rather confusingly expressed, is that in word-formations with the prefix on- the "real stressed form" of this prefix is an. Again, in para 568, an- is described as "the stressed form of the preposition on, on". From this it appears as though anfloga could well be read as the "stressed" form of an unattested word, onfloga. A word with this precise spelling is not even a hapax legomenon in Anglo-Saxon, but that does not mean that such a suggested reading of the actual hapax legomenon is inadmissable. Onflyge would appear to be closely related, and it is nowhere defined as a bird, but merely as a mysterious something (infectious disease? projectile?) which flies. The DOE gives four instances for flyge, defined as "flight", which is also Wright's definition (para 386), and defines an equally clearly related word, fleoge (45 instances), principally as a winged insect, ie a fly. Bosworth-Toller, 1898, has an entry for a word floga, which is defined as "one who flies or flees, a fugitive; fugitivus."

L.Ettmüller, Lexicon Anglosaxonicum, 1851, p 53, has an entry as follows: ânfloga, -an, m. solivagus, daemonis draconis formâ induti volantis cognomen. Although Ettmüller reads the prefix as "one", he equally clearly links the "flier" with the dragon in Beowulf. Bosworth-Toller's derivation of floga as an independent word is interesting. Besides an-floga, the dictionary lists guþ-floga, lyft-floga, uht-floga, wid-floga. These compounds are used of the dragon in Beowulf, which is emphatically neither a bird, nor a disembodied soul. It is, in fact, a malignant, flying fantasy; an imaginary unidentifiable flying object. In its definition for ânfloga, BT gives "lonely flying"; solitarie volans, solivagus, and references Exon. 82 2; and Th. 309, 25; as well as The Seafarer. It looks as if Exon 82 2 (Codex Exoniensis) and Seef 62 ("Contraction used in Grein's Lexicon Poeticon: 'Seefahrer, from Co. Exon. p 306'") are merely references to the same single occurrence, and Th. 309, 25 is just another. The dragon is also quite certainly an "attacking flier", albeit also on its own.

It was strongly maintained that in the context of line 62b of The Seafarer, namely gielleð anfloga, the an- of anfloga has to be stressed, for metrical reasons. Since Wright gives an- as the stressed form of on- there is no disagreement here. Any argument that the an- of anfloga must mean "one", simply because it is stressed, seems to be insufficiently founded, however. An assertion was made in this debate that: "The stressed form of this prefix (ie an-), which you would require .... is and-. See Campbell's grammar, section 73. To be eligible for your interpretation, the form would I think have to be and-floga, on the model of and-saca (one who moves against or attacks)"; followed by "Old English had not reduced stressed and- to an--. Or at least I have found no cases mentioned by Wright or Campbell." This assertion appears to conflict with what Wright actually says, although it may be that Wright is no longer regarded as oracular. A quick look in Old English Grammar, revised paperback edition 1983, by A.Campbell, reveals that in the index the reader is directed from an, unstressed, to "see on". Campbell's Grammar, particularly in connection with his chapter on accent, paras 71 onwards, is examined here.

The DOE has a 20,780 word entry for an as a headword, an exceptionally thorough and exhaustive article written by Matti Rissanen, of Helsinki University. However, this entry inevitably gives no consideration to an as the "stressed form of the preposition on", and therefore its lists of compounds with an- as a prefix exclusively assign a meaning of the numeral "one" when translating these words. In other sources, as for instance in Beowulf, Harrison & Sharp, 1895, an is glossed thus: "an, prep. with the dative, on, in, with respect to, 678; with, among, at, upon (position after the governed word), 1936; with the acc., 1248. Elsewhere on, which see." In this glossary, the numeral ân has its entry under Â, a separate heading.

Sixty years earlier, the Rev. J. Bosworth, LL.D., Dr. Phil. of Leyden, in A Dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon Language, 1838, p 20, noted that "An is sometimes used in composition for and-, or un-, or in-, as anweorc for andweorc; anbindan for unbindan to unbind, loosen." The DOE lists andweorc, but not anweorc, except as a variant spelling, along with andwearc, ondweorc, andworc, anwurces. One of the DOE's definitions is: "referring to God's creation of the universe, especially to the substance or matter of creation". The word andweorc seems to appear in translations of Psalm 19:1, eg: "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork." (King James Bible). A handy re-usage of and-.

The DOE entry, consistently reading the stressed prefix an- as "one", lists the following 78 compounds: an-ad, an-boren, an-buend, an-byme, an-cenned, an-cummum, an-cynn, an-daga, an-dagian, an-dæge, an-eage, an-eagede, an-ecge, an-ecgede, an-feald, an-fealdlice, an-fealdnes, an-fete, an-floga, an-forlætan, an-genga, an-gylde [adj]., an-gylde [noun], an-gyldes, an-haga, an-handode, an-healfruh, an-hende, an-hiwe, an-horn, an-hundwintre, an-hygdig, an-hyrne, an-hyrnede, an-laga, an-læcan, an-legere, an-lipig, an-lipnes, an-mede, an-mod, an-modlice, an-modnes, an-nes, an-pæþ, an-ræde, an-rædlic, an-rædlice, an-rædnes, an-reces, an-seld, an-setl, an-setla, an-spræce, an-standende, an-stapa, an-steled, an-stiga, an-stræc, an-streces, an-swege, an-tid, an-getrum, an-unga, an-weald, an-wealda, an-wig, an-wiglice, an-wille, an-willendlice, an-willice, an-wilnes, an-wintre, an-wuniende, an-wunung, an-wyrding. Those compounds of some particular interest here have been underlined and highlighted. The conclusion must be that, so far as this entry is concerned, the DOE rejects Wright's perception that an can at times be the stressed form of the preposition on. A secondary conclusion is that not all the above listed compounds necessarily or exclusively carry the sense of "one" in their meanings.

Omitting irrelevancies, such as ancor (anchor) and angel (angel), and compounds formed from these and similar exceptions, the DOE lists approximately 375 words starting an- or and-. Wright gives and- as another "stressed form of on", see para 569, above. About 130 of the DOE's list consists of words starting and-. Including these, but omitting the DOE's list of 78 compounds using stressed an-, there remain roughly 290 words beginning an- or and-.

The prefix and- may, for the purposes of this examination, be taken as a stressed version of on-, as indicated by Wright, para 569. There remain about five words where the prefix an- is stressed, but which are not included among the 78 compounds listed by the DOE, under an as a headword. Since these all carry the sense of solitude or solitariness, it is a little puzzling why they have been omitted from the list at the entry's end. Perhaps they are dealt with elsewhere. One or two have a recognizable independent word as their second component.

Ignoring and- for the time being, it is of interest to compare the seven words listed by Wright, said to be formed with an- as the stressed form of on-, para 568, with what the DOE has to say; as below:

Wright Gloss DOE entry: extracts selected as seeming relevant
anbrucol rugged rugged, steep. Adj. 1 occ.
anfilte anvil anvil. Noun, n., f.: anfilte | onfilte || 15 occ. (mainly in glosses)
anfohrt alarmed apparently not included.
anginn beginning beginning in time, onset: angin; andgin | onginn, ongin | ongyn | angynnum | onginnum | ongynnum. (6 cases with prefix on-; 3 cases with an- or and-).
ansien countenance face, countenance; cunnan on ansyne 'to recognize by sight'; also figurative. Noun: ansyn; ansien; | onsyn | onsien. [Comment: cf Sw. ansikte, face; anseende, reputation.]
ansund entire, sound whole, sound, having integrity. Adj.: ansund; onsund || ansundne; onsundne || ansunde; onsunde || ansundum; onsundum. ca. 100 occ. (freq. in Ælfric).
This word, spelt anweald, appears three times in the DOE: as Adj., unstressed: powerful, mighty: anweald, onwald (corrected from onweald); as Noun, unstressed: power, sovereignty, sway, command, direction; as Noun, stressed: sole rule, monarchy, absolute power. With prefix confusion: andwealdes. Some of the occurrences spelled an-, given s.v. anweald 'power', may belong here (ie among stressed nouns).

The deeper the digging, the muddier the muddle. My head may be above the parapet, but it's barely still above water. If Wright is right, and his list of seven words starting an- all stress the prefix, why are six of them not stressed in the DOE? Why does he include a hapax, anbrucol, when it appears (presumably) nowhere as onbrucol? Does brucol actually exist as an independent word, so that it can be legitimately included among other "word-formations"? It doesn't seem to feature in BT, but I may be mistaken. J.B.Bessinger Jr, A Short Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon Poetry, 1960, does not list anfohrt, but does mention unfohrt, "very fearful (?)", also "very frightened", p xii. Bessinger lists anfloga twice: once as "sole flier", and also, amazingly, p.3, "attacking flier". Wow! Why does the DOE apparently not list anfohrt? Why is the DOE so user-unfriendly? Notwithstanding it has its uses, admittedly. Given the lack of unanimity in all these dictionaries, and although a great deal of midnight oil has no doubt been burnt in compiling the DOE's entries so far, it appears to lack any real unifying vision, and could do with another 35 years of work.

February, 2010. "It is hard to dispel the suspicion that the editors will achieve, not a dictionary, but a quarry for future Ph.D. students to exploit", notes R.I.Page, in Toronto's Plan for an Old English Dictionary, published in Notes & Queries, New Series, Vol 22, No 4, April, 1975. On reading Professor Page's article I appreciate that, from beginning to end, it constitutes a damning demolition of the Plan. It expresses every reservation that I have been sensing since paying my $75 in October, 2009. The article is prophetic: thirty-five years after it was written, the concerns expressed have come to pass, or, at least, the problems indicated have not been surmounted --- in any way at all. Choice quotes from R.I.Page.

Anweald is of special interest in both of Wright's lists (anweald - authority, para 568, and andweald - power, para 569) as well as in the DOE. The DOE lists an-weald adj., an-weald noun, an-ge·weald, ân-weald (stressed), an-wealda, ân-wealda (stressed), an-wealdan, ge·an-wealdian, an-wealdig, an-wealdnes. Gulp. Ten angels on this pinhead.

The an- of anweald appears to hover between "on" and "one". Weald means power, with a heavy sense of violence, Swedish våld. The sense of weighty force, descending on an immovable object, is perhaps also present in the an- of anfilte, with filte implying obdurate flatness. Onweald suggests power backed up by force, almost oppressive power; ânweald implies sole power, autocracy. A modern cognate, such as Swedish enväld, means just that: undivided, unshared, solitary, arbitrary power. It is fairly obvious that the DOE is not fully clear about this distinction; and curious that, in view of the predominance of unstressed an- in its examples, that it tends towards interpreting anweald as generalised power, rather than autocracy.

An-dagian, and an-wyrding, though of interest in the DEO list, may be skipped for the time being.

One of the arguments put forward in favour of anfloga meaning "solitary flier" is that the word can be likened to anhaga and angenga. This is not a convincing argument, though it may persuade many. When the anhaga isn't a wanderer it is a hermit, or a recluse. When the angenga isn't Grendel it is a prowler, or stalker. Such entities may be pointed out, and referred to. But the anfloga has no such identity: no-one would point skyward at an isolated bird, and say: "Look! The anfloga!"

In connection with the argument put forward above, that if the an- of anfloga was actually on-, then in order for it to be stressed, it would have to be spelt and-, one might ask: if the scribe was careless enough to drop an "h" in mis-copying on(h)wæl weg, why wouldn't he be careless enough to drop a "d" in writing anfloga? Answer: because both puns would have been intentional. Your prosaic grammarian hates ambiguity. Besides which, and- occurs not infrequently as an-.

Possibly the most combative opposition to discussing these matters came from one individual, who wrote as follows, quote: "Your real argument in favor of your definition of anfloga appears to be dependent on my reaching your understanding of the sentence and the poem in which the word occurs and there are unfortunately too many steps in your published argument I can't swallow, involving particularly the definition (and grammar) of unwearnum and the definition of hweteð." The same person rejected any conjectured similarity between onflyge and anfloga on the peculiar grounds that anfloga would consequently mean "elf-arrow". Agreed that there is too great a disparity between onflyge and anfloga for an argument linking the two to be acceptable on its own. Translating anfloga as "elf-arrow" would, of course, be as ridiculous as translating unwearnum "eagerly" or "greedily", as Schuchardt advises, later picked up by Klaeber, and repeated in 2009. In neither The Seafarer nor Beowulf is such a translation remotely acceptable. Moreover, hweteð does not primarily mean "incites". The greater truth is that those who translate the words in such a fashion are twisting their meanings to fit pre-conceived notions of what the passage is actually saying. Swallowing truth takes some effort. It hurts.


To be continued; but who can say when?
Like here and now.


"Very little has been done hitherto to investigate the exact shades of meaning in Old English words." Otto Jespersen, Growth and Structure of the English Language, Chapter 3, § 52; 1938.

"Mediocre minds cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices, but honestly uses his intelligence." Albert Einstein.

"Of course, there are many mathematicians who are more or less honest. But almost all of them are conformists. They are more or less honest, but they tolerate those who are not honest." Grigori Perelman.

Take a look at "Journey's Jargon"


wearn: further notes: November 2009

Can wearn be an adjective as well as a noun? Empson's well-known newspaper headline "Italian assassin bomb plot disaster" comes easily to mind, where the only certain noun is "disaster". The Anglo-Saxon Glossar by Heinrich Leo, 1872, has relevance when it comes to his linked readings of wearn and unwearn as adjectives: viz. vearn adj.: der sich hütet, der sich einer Sache versieht, and unvearn adj.: der sich nicht hütet, sich einer Sache nicht versieht: Seef. 63. "Unvearn: der sich nicht hütet" would be an adjectival description of a "man who is not on his guard" --- highly accurate in the case of Beowulf's comrade Hondsciô. Wearn as an adjective is close to "wary" in meaning. However, Leo appears to be alone in his readiness to consider wearn as both adjective and noun. Usage of wearn as an adjective appeals, idiomatically speaking.

The perception that unwearnum is actually the dative case of an adjective receives support from consideration of the grammatical function of the -um ending. This ending is only applied to nouns, whether masculine, feminine or neuter, when they are in the plural. Whatever else it may be, the appearance of unwearnum in either The Seafarer or Beowulf is certainly not plural. But the -um ending does occur as the dative case in both singular and plural strong adjectives, masculine and neuter. In spite of his angenga position, Leo seems to be thinking along the right lines when treating unwearn as an adjective. A man who is unwearn is a man who is unguarded or defenceless, not one who is obstacle- or hindrance-less.

Richard Schuchardt, from whom the initial concept of unwearnum meaning "greedily" almost certainly derives, produced a doctoral dissertation entitled Die Negation im Beowulf in 1910 at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität zu Berlin. Since this dissertation is not currently at hand, I will conjecture that what Schuchardt actually said was that unwearnum meant, quote: "ohne Weigering, d.h. gierig", which is suggested by the note provided by Schücking in his 1910 revised edition of Heyne's glossary. "Gierig" appears then to have been translated into "greedily", not from the Anglo-Saxon, but from the German, and slowly worked its way, with ever-increasing ossification, into later interpretations. "Avidly" might have been a better translation of Schuchardt's "gierig", but it would still be wrong. The idea that unwearnum could possibly mean either "eagerly" or "greedily" is quite ridiculous, as well as ludicrous, laughable, risible and hilarious, possibly even derisory. The following sampler of translations has been extracted from Re unwearnum: A Digression, to show how "greedily" has voraciously, and hungrily, infiltrated Beowulf scholarship, as well as common-or-garden translation.




lines 740-741 (Klaeber)
ms text:
ac he gefeng hraðe forman siðe
slæpendne rinc slat unwearnum
(1st ed)
J.M.GarnettBut quickly he seized for the first time
A sleeping warrior, him tore unresisting,
[NB: "him tore unawares." Heyne 1879, 4th ed.]
1910M.Heyne [glossary. 9th edition of text, ed. L.L. Schücking].un-wearnum adv. instr. pl. ohne Weigering, d.h. gierig (vgl. Schuchardt S.14) 741.
(glossary & note: 2nd edition.)
unwearnum adv. suddenly, when off his guard.   741 n. unwearnum, according to Schuchardt, means 'without refusing', ' eagerly.'
(1st ed.)
Fr.Klaeber; (glossary)un-wearnum, adv. (dp.), without hindrance, irresistibly; or: eagerly, greedily (Schuchardt L See wearn.
1949J.R.Clark Hall, 1911 edition revised by C.L.Wrennbut quickly seized a sleeping warrior as a beginning, rent him greedily.   [Clark Hall had written "unwarned"].
edited by J.E.Tuso 1975
but, starting his work, he suddenly seized a sleeping man, tore at him ravenously,
1968K.Crossley-Hollandbut, for a start, he hungrily seized
a sleeping warrior, greedily wrenched him
1987G.RobertsBut quickly seized in his first foray
A sleeping warrior, tore him apart greedily,
1987J.Glover (based on M.Alexander & E.Morgan)As a first step he set his greedy hands on
A sleeping soldier, savagely tore him,
1999S.HeaneyNor did the creature keep him waiting
but struck suddenly and started in;
he grabbed and mauled (?) a man on his bench,
(4th ed.)
Fr.Klaeber; (glossary)un-wearnum, adv. (dp.), without hindrance, irresistibly; or: eagerly, greedily (Schuchardt 1910: 14, Hoops). See wearn.

The dagger, †, designates words (or meanings) found in poetry only..............                                                     [back to Klaeber 1922]

Note, January 2012. E.V.K.Dobbie, 1953, was not included on the above brickwork, but his note should have been, especially as the glossaries of Heyne, 1910, and Klaeber, 1922 and 2009, are cited. This was a grave omission, since his comment seems sensible, and an improvement on Klaeber. Here it is:

Beowulf and Judith, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, Vol IV, p 152, by E.V.K.Dobbie. In his note to Beowulf, line 741, unwearnum], Dobbie writes: "'Without hindrance,' an adverbial form from the noun wearn, 'hindrance, obstacle, refusal'. For other examples of this type, see l. 1072, note. This meaning of unwearnum is much more likely than 'greedily', accepted by Hoops, pp 93f, following R.Schuchardt, Die Negation in Beowulf (Berlin, 1910), p 14." "Greedily" is, of course, rubbish; but the more accurate fact, however, is that wearn primarily means "defence"; and a man who is wearn (as an adjective) means a man who is wary, or, if you will, aware and alert. With his guard up.


From Wright's Old English Grammar, 3rd edition, 1925
Negated nouns highlighted in red. For Schumann & Hutchings on un-, see here.


selection of earlier notes on wearn and unwearnum
with additions

Skeat W.W.; A Concise Etymological Dictionary; third edition 1887:

Warn: see Wary.

Wary, Ware: cautious. (E.) M.E. war; war-y is a rather late form, with added -y (as in murk-y). A.S. wær, cautious, + Icel. varr, Dan. Swed. var, Goth. wars. Cf G. gewahr, aware. Allied to Skt. var-man, armour, from vri, to cover: also to Gk. óp-áw, I perceive, L. uer-eri, to regard, dread.

Warn. (E.) A.S. wearnian, warnian, (1) to take heed, which is the usual sense, (2) to warn. From the sb. wearn, refusal, denial, orig. a guarding of oneself. Allied to Wary (above). + Icel. varna, to warn off, from vörn, a defence; Swed. varna, G. warnen.

Skeat seems more than slightly muddled in his third edition. Words under Wa-We are not alphabetically ordered.

Skeat W.W.; Etymological Dictionary; revised edition 1909:

WARN: to caution against, put on one's guard. (E) ME warnien, warnen, Chaucer, C.T. 3535. AS wearnian, warnian, (1) to take heed, which is the usual sense, Luke, xi, 35; (2) to warn, Gen. vi. 6; cf warnung, a warning, Gen xli. 32. Cognate with OHG. warnon, to provide for oneself against, used reflexively, whence G. warnen, to warn against, to caution against. Further allied to beware and wary; see WARY.

Distinct from the AS sb wearn, a refusal, denial (Grein), an obstacle, impediment (Bosworth ?); the orig. sense being a guarding of oneself, a defence of a person on trial, as in Icel. vörn, a defence; cf Icel. varna, to warn off, refuse, abstain from.

NB. Bosworth, 1868, actually defines unwearnum as "without warnings, unawares". See below.

Partridge Eric; ORIGINS: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English; RKP 4th ed 1966:

WARN: OE wearnian, warnian, is very closely related to OE wearn, a hindrance or obstacle (? hence) a denial or a refusal, and related also to OFris warna, werna, OS warnian, wernien, ON varna, to refuse, and OHG warnon, MHG-G warnen, to warn -- therefore prob, further off, MHG warn, to observe, G wahren, to preserve, ON vara, to warn, and therefore perh ult the E WARD. But the interrelationships of all these words are still imprecise. [VERY, VERY TRUE, Eric].

Oxford English Dictionary; 2nd edition, 1989:

Warn, sb. [f. WARN v.1 (The OE. wearn refusal, is a different word: see WARN v. 2).]

Warn v. 2 [Two formations: (1) OE. wiernan -- OTeut. *warnjan; (2) OE. wearnian (also warnian, warenian, by confusion with WARN v.1) --- OTeut. *warnojan. The two OTeut. types are f. *warno fem. (OE. wearn) obstacle, refusal etc, f. the root *wer-; *war- to obstruct, defend.]

There is something seriously wrong with the OED's definition of (OE. wearn) as "refusal".


to be expanded from Cruxnotes: see earlier page


note a: dictionary excerpts:

Grein, C.W.M.; Bibliothek der Angelsächsischen Poesie mit vollständigem Glossar; Cassel/Göttingen 1864:

unvearnum adv: unwiderstehlich. [B.741; Seef.63]
vearn f.: 1) Verweigerung, Versagen. [B.366]; 2) Widerstand: s unvearnum.; 3) Vorwürfe

Bosworth, J.; A Compendious Anglo-Saxon and English Dictionary; Soho Square, 1868:

unwær: Unaware, unwary, unexpected
unwáres: Unawares
unwearnum: Without warnings, unawares
wearn, e: f. 1. A keeping off, hinderance, obstacle, a contrariety, resistance. 2. A refusal, denial.
nb: A "keeping off" could just as easily have been glossed "a defence" or "a guard".

Leo, Heinrich; Angelsächsisches Glossar; Halle; 1872/77:

vearn f.: die Abwehr, das Versagen, obstaculum, impedimentum
vearn adj.: der sich hütet, der sich einer Sache versieht
unvearn adj.: der sich nicht hütet, sich einer Sache nicht versieht: Seef. 63
varnian (vernan, vyrnan): caus. v. warnen; sich hüten
þäs landes vyrnan: sich im Besitz eines Landgütes vertheidigen, behüten, abwehren;
varna þe sylfne: hüte Dich selbst
sumum sumhvät vyrnan: einem Etwas abwehren, auch: einem Etwas versagen
vearnung: Abwehr, Vermeidung
vyrd oþþe varnung: Schicksal oder Widerstand dagegen
vär (var, ver, vor): das Wehr (im Flusse)

nb: Grein and Leo transcribe the Anglo-Saxon letter wynn as "v"; and the letter æ as "ä".

Sweet, Henry; Anglo-Saxon Reader, 1876:

unwearnum: irresistibly. Glossed under "words or meanings peculiar to poetry"
wær f: security, treaty
wearn: glossed "resistance"
nb: Why doesn't Sweet gloss wearn as "defence", instead of "resistance"? Unwearn would then mean "undefended", instead of "unresisting", which Sweet erroneously converts into "irresistibly".

Harrison, James A, (& Sharp, Robert); Beowulf; Boston 1883:

unwearnum: adv. instr. pl., unawares, suddenly, (unresistingly?), 742

Sweet, Henry; The Student's Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon, OUP 1896:

unwær: not on one's guard; heedless
unwaran (=-um) av: unexpectedly
unwearnum: irresistibly, without hindrance.
warnian, waren-, wearn-: warn? rfl: take warning; beware of
warnung f: warning
wearn nf: refusal, hindrance, rebuke [cf Grein above]

Bosworth & Toller; Anglo-Saxon Dictionary; OUP 1898:

unwearnum: adv: without hindrance: Beowulf Th 1487; B 741; Exon Th 309, 27; Seef 63. v wearn
wearn: e f.: a hindrance, obstacle, difficulty [cf Grein, Leo, above]. [Icel. vörn a defence.]

Clark Hall, J.R.; A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary; rev ed 1931; University of Toronto Press 1960:

unwær: incautious, careless, unthinking, foolish: unaware, unexpected.
unwæres: unawares, suddenly
unwærlic: unwary, heedless ["unwarely"]
unwearnum: adv irresistibly, suddenly, in a moment
warian: I. to be wary, beware: guard, protect, defend: warn: hold, possess, attend: inhabit. II. to make a treaty (with).
wearn: I. f. reluctance, repugnance, refusal, denial, CP; resistance: reproaches, abuse.

[CP indicates King Alfred's translation of Gregory's Pastoral Care. This source needs checking to see if the context convincingly justifies a reading of "refusal" for wearn. Clark Hall's other definitions for wearn seem somewhat extreme.]

Bessinger, J.R.Jr.; A Short Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon Poetry; University of Toronto Press 1960:

warian II: be wary, alert; keep, defend; inhabit
wearn nf: refusal, hindrance, rebuke [cf Grein above.]
wearnian v: warn, take warning, be on guard
wearnung warning, foresight
unwær aj: incautious
unwearnum av.dat: without restraint, irresistibly

Oxford English Dictionary; micrographic edition, 1979:

Bar, sb 1. --- late Latin barra of unknown origin. The Celtic derivation accepted by Diez is now discredited: OIr. barr 'bushy top', and its cognates, in no way suit the sense; Welsh bar 'bar' is from Eng., and Breton barren 'bar' from Fr. (The development of sense had to a great extent taken place before the word was adopted in English.)

*** *** ***

Those demented enough to have followed me thus far are likely to be lexicologicomaniacs themselves, and will have reached their own conclusions. For what they may be worth, however, these are mine:

a. The Modern English word "bar" derives from late Latin "barra", which is not itself a Latin word.
b. Late Latin "barra" very probably derives from the Old Teutonic root *war- to defend.
c. "Bar" and wearn share common ancestry and carry meanings which are very similar if not identical.
d. The sense "refusal" attributed to wearn, if not non-existent, is a red herring.
e. The senses "refusal" for wearn, and "irresistibly" for unwearnum, were introduced by Grein, who misinterprets both Beowulf and The Seafarer.
f. Grein has been followed uncritically by Sweet, Bosworth & Toller (cf spelling of reference: Seef. 63); and in Clark Hall's revised 1931 edition, Bessinger, Griffiths.
g. Leo is more accurate than Grein.
h. The oracular Oxford English Dictionary has confirmed these errors, and set them in concrete.
i. Unwearn is an adjective, and is perceived as such by Leo, who therefore appears to be considering unwearnum an instance of the dative case of attendant circumstance. A strong masculine or neuter adjective takes -um, in the singular number, and unwearnum in The Seafarer is nothing if not singular.
j. A "bar" has two functions. For those on one side, it is an obstacle/impediment. To those on the opposite side, it is a defence.

back to article             back to original notes


notes on (h)wælweg

note b

The published text of The Central Crux of The Seafarer appended a list of 37 variant translations of ll.62b-64a. Five of these have some bearing on the disputed interpretation of onwæl weg, and are discussed.

Benjamin Thorpe 1842:

gielleð an-floga ----------------- yells the lone bird
hweteð on (h)wæl-weg -------- urges on the whale-way
hreþer unwearnum -------------- nathless suddenly
ofer holma gelagu --------------- over ocean's flood:

C.W.M.Grein 1857:

                                    es gellt der Einsamfliegende
und treibt unwiderstehlich mich auf den Todesweg
über der Holmflut Masse;

Henry Sweet 1871:

... my mind ... screams in its solitary flight, impels me irresistibly on the path of death over the ocean waters.

Henry Sweet 1888:

My mind departs out of my breast like a sea-bird, screams in its lonely flight, returns to me, fierce and eager, impels me irresistibly over the wide wastes of waters, over the whale's path.

A.D.Horgan 1979:

(Here's why my soul) ......, why the lone flyer
Urges my soul resistlessly upon destruction's
across the expanse of waters.

Thorpe's pioneering literal translation is clearly wrong in his interpretation of hreþer, but approximately right on unwearnum. He sets the mould for almost all future readings of an-floga as "lone bird, lone flier", and introduces the initial emendation of on (h)wæl-weg for the manuscript onwæl weg. Grein, rejecting Thorpe's emendation, is confident that wæl weg means Todesweg, "death-way" and not "whale-way", but he introduces the first reading of unwiderstehlich, "unwithstandably", for unwearnum. Fourteen years later Sweet is content to follow Grein, with "path of death", but after another seventeen years he has changed his mind, and reverts to Thorpe's reading, with "whale's path". It takes a further 91 years before Horgan, in a closely argued but in my view otherwise off-target analysis of the poem's structure, is inspired to reinterpret wæl weg once more, and offer "destruction's path".

Horgan produces a detailed defence for his reading of wæl weg. "In the first place the metrical argument is not decisive either way. Secondly, the proposed corruption is not probably from a palaeographical point of view, as there seems no particular reason why a scribe should make such a mistake. Thirdly, there appears to be a strong argument to be advanced for the retention of the manuscript reading on thematic grounds."

It is worth noting that Clark Hall's Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, 4th edition, 1960, lists 67 (!) compound words with the initial element wæl-. H.D.Meritt supplements the list with another three, of which one, wælgenga, is confirmed in Cark Hall's translation of "sea-monster". In this word the element wæl-, with a variant pronunciation, carries the meaning of wæl: "whirlpool, sea, flood", cf modern "well" in the sense of an upsurge of water. Omitting wælgenga, we thus have a total of 69 Anglo-Saxon compound words starting wæl-. In 68 of these instances wæl- connotes "death". The one exception in Clark Hall's emended dictionary is, quote: "wælweg (SEAF 63) = hwælweg".

Clark Hall, born 1855, appears to have died between 1931 and about 1940. The first edition of his dictionary, 1894, offered the following definition: "fateful journey, way of slaughter." SEAF.63. A second edition appeared in 1916, where the reader was now redirected from wælweg to hwælweg, which is somewhat simplistically defined as "sea". A third edition was produced in 1931, and this appears to be unchanged in the 4th edition, 1960, which added the supplement by Herbert D. Meritt. A review of this 4th edition by A.Campbell commented that the supplement would "be of great use until a full-scale new Old English dictionary is completed". Fifty years later, this is still a long, long way off. In 2008 Clark Hall's dictionary was grotesquely described as "abysmal".

The word valplats (place of death) is still in current Swedish usage as a slightly heightened term for "battlefield". It is the place where the valkyria can still be envisioned as selecting those doomed to die. Some additional confusion arises from the fact that val in Swedish can also mean "choice", whereas the sense of "selection" in valkyria is predominantly carried by the element -kyria. Kyria survives in the Swedish word kora which means "choose, select" and sometimes "elect"; cf German Kurfürst, "Elector".

back to article             back to original notes             forward to g.v.smithers

note c

Rev. Clair McPherson 1987:

                                    the lone flier screams
Whets the heart unawares on to the whale-way
Over the sea's expanse;

Unlike the translations of the word in Beowulf, of the 37 versions of The Seafarer I had managed to find by 1995, dated between 1842 and 1991, McPherson's was the only one since Thorpe to tackle unwearnum correctly. Rudolf Imelmann had a long struggle with it, trying unweigerlich in 1908, and das sich nicht weigern darf in 1920, but seems mesmerised by its (to me) chimerical connotation of "refusal". Ten of the other translators must have sensed something amiss with "irresistibly", with six of them evading the issue by omitting the word altogether. In my respectful opinion, the 150 year history of this microcosmic matter offers a remarkable object-lesson in the pitfalls of scholarship. For want of a nail, the battle was lost.

back to article             back to original notes


touching on hyge and gielleð

hyge. Many discussions, and translations, of The Seafarer during the last 100 years determinedly interpret hyge as the airborne soul of the living seafarer. This reading appears to be another instance of the misguided search for Anglo-Saxon paganism, or shamanism. But hyge does not mean soul. It means "mind" or "inclination". This is very clear at line 44: ne biþ him to hearpan hyge, where hyge unmistakably means "inclination" or "desire".

gielleð. Line 62b describes the sound made by the anfloga: ie gielleð anfloga. The modern English descendant of gielleð is "yell". Under gyllan and gylian the DOE proposes various translations for the sound in different contexts. These include: to cry loudly, to screech; to bay or howl; to make strident, grating or crashing noises; whistling, whizzing; screaming, shrieking; as well as yell. The words do not immediately suggest to me the kind of sounds that might be uttered by a wandering soul returning to its body. They remind me more of the reputed shrieks and screams made by a Celtic Banshee, or Wagnerian Valkyrie, but it is difficult to be completely certain in such matters.

See further comments here.

A Seafarer



in the tomb of Senejem, Thebes, 13th/14th century BC.

A streak of blue-green
Is all that is seen
Of the kingfisher's flight
As he drops from the height
Of a riverside tree
When chancing to see
A fish unwary.
  His beautiful hues
He does not choose
To show or vaunt
And for his haunt
The uncrowned king
Of all on wing
Selects the quiet stream.

chw circa 1952


The Cambridge Old English Reader
The Meaning of The Seafarer and The Wanderer. G.V.Smithers
An, Ân, & Eft: Old English Grammar. A. Campbell
R.I.Page and the DOE
Hugr, Hyge, Håg
The prefix un- in Anglo-Saxon
the central crux of the seafarer
Biblical Echoes
re: unwearnum
visualizations of the anfloga
essays and papers

© Charles Harrison Wallace 2009
all rights reserved