Changes to Old English vocabulary

Changes to Old English vocabulary
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Old English

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Many words that existed in Old English did not survive into Modern English. There are also many words in Modern English that bear little or no resemblance in meaning to their Old English etymons. Some linguists estimate that as much as 80 percent of the lexicon of Old English was lost by the end of the Middle English period.[citation needed] Certain categories of words seem to have been especially vulnerable. Nearly all words relating to sexual intercourse and sexual organs were supplanted by words of Latin or Ancient Greek origin. Many, if not most, of the words in Modern English that are used in polite conversation to describe body parts and bodily functions are of Latin or Greek origin. The words which were used in Old English for these same purposes are now mostly either extinct or considered crude or vulgar, such as arse/ass.

Some words became extinct while other near-synonyms of Old English origin replaced them (limb survives, yet lið is gone). Many of these linguistic changes were brought on by the Norman invasion, but some were also spurred by the introduction of Old Norse words.



Modern English has no Germanic words left that mean "animal" in its most generic sense of "non-human creature." Old English dēor (cf. deer), gesceaft, gesceap, nēat, and iht were all eclipsed by animal, beast, creature and critter, all of Latin origin.

  • āðexe: "lizard." Lizard appeared in Middle English and is from Old French lesarde, from Latin lacertus [1]. The earliest occurrence of the word (spelled lusarde) was in the Piers Plowman (c. 1360–1399). Old English āðexe, however, does survive as ask ("newt, eft"):Cf. German Eidechse, Dutch hagedis.
  • ælepūte: "burbot" The Old French word borbote replaced ælepūte by the Middle English period [2]. Burbot first occurred in English around 1475.
    Note: The word's modern descendant "eelpout" is occasionally used for the burbot, although that term has come to define a different animal.
  • cawelwyrm: "caterpillar" (see lēafwyrm)
  • culfre: "dove, pigeon."
    Has survived as rare/dialectal culver, a word the AHD believes comes from Vulgar Latin colombula [3]. The OED acknowledges this possibility but asserts that it is more likely native. Culver is first attested in English c. 825 and dove c 1200. The Middle English dove is thought to come from Old English, but the assumed form (*dūfe) is unattested, cf. dūfedoppa below. Most likely common Germanic.[3].
  • dēor: "animal, beast." Dēor, the etymon of English deer, simply meant "animal" or "beast" in Old English, although there are contextual uses of dēor as deer as early as c. 893 (Ælfred). At some point in the Middle English period the more specific meaning of deer was common and by the end of the period, "deer" seemed to be the primary meaning.
Cf. German Tier, Dutch dier, Swedish djur, Danish and Norwegian dyr, Icelandic dýr.
  • dūfedoppa: "pelican." "Pelican" appeared in Middle English and is ultimately from Ancient Greek[4].
  • ened: "duck, drake." Drake first appeared c. 1300 and ened disappeared. The AHD says the origin is unknown [5]. Old High German antrahho seems to be a combination of ant (cognate of Old English ened) and trahho (cognate of drake), but the OED holds that the conjectured cognate in Old English (*andrake) "has no basis of fact." The word "ened" likely has a PIE origin, cf. Latin anas, Lithuanian antis and Old Greek nēssa ("duck"). "Duck" is from Old English *duce, presumably from O.E. verb ducan (duck, dive).
Cf. German Ente, Dutch eend, common Scandinavian and.
  • fifalde: "butterfly" Old English also had the word butorflēoge as early as 1000, and this term of dubious origin (although the ultimately Greek word "butter" is certainly the first element) [6] eventually pushed out the entirely Germanic fifalde.
Cf. Old High German fîfaltarâ, German Falter, Old Saxon vivoldara, Southern Dutch vijfwouter, Old Norse fifrildi, Icelandic fiðrildi, Swedish fjäril (also Latin papilio).
  • firgenbucca: "ibex" Ibex is from Latin ibex [7] and first appeared in English (as ibecks) in 1607 in Edward Topsell's "The historie of foure-footed beastes".
    From firgen "wooded height", "mountain" (Cf. Gothic fairguni (mountain, Old High German Fergunna (Ore Mountains), and bucca, buck).
Cf. German Steinbock, Dutch (alpen)steenbok (ibex)
  • gesceaft: "creature" (see gesceap)
  • gesceap: "creature" Gesceap, the etymon of English shape that is documented as far back as c. 1050, had many meanings in Old English: "creature," "creation," "structure," "form," "figure," "configuration," "pudendum," "decree" and "destiny." "Creature," ultimately from Latin first entered English c. 1300 and actually pre-dates the word "create" in English [8]. Gesceaft, "creation," "origin," "constitution," "nature," "species," has the same etymological root as gesceap. It is documented as early as 888 and occurs in this meaning in various forms as late as c. 1579 (as schaft).
  • hacod: "mullet" The OED lists hacod/haked as a dialectal name for a large pike and has a citation as late as 1847, but this word is not listed in any modern dictionary. "Mullet" appeared in Middle English and it ultimately comes from Ancient Greek [9].
Probably related to haca (hook), cf. Modern English hake, Dutch heek (hake), German Hechte (esox).
  • hæferblæte: "bittern" "Bittern" entered Middle English as botor and comes from Old French butor. It is attested in English c. 1000.
  • higera: "jay" Jai appeared in Middle English (c. 1310) and is from Old French. The AHD states that it is possibly from the Latin praenomen Gaius, but gives no possible reason for the semantic change [10]. The OED does not address the "Gaius" theory, only stating that it cannot be identified with Old French gai "gay" [11]. It instead acknowledges but does not comment on the possibility that it is from Old High German gâhi "swift, quick, lively."
Cf. German Häher.
  • hwilpe: "curlew." The Middle English form curleu comes from Old French courlieu which is possibly of onomatopoeic origin [12]. The OED also believes that it is probably onomatopoeic, but notes that its became assimilated to that of courlieu, curleu "courier, which is ultimately from Latin currere "to run."
  • iht: "creature" (see gesceap)
  • lēafwyrm: "caterpillar," literally "leaf worm," "leaf insect." Webster's 1897 version lists "leaf-worm" as "a caterpillar that devours leaves," but no modern dictionaries list this word. The cawel in cawelwyrm was a loan from Latin caulis "cabbage" and the last recorded use of it was c. 1000 (as cawelwurm). Mælsceafa (also "caterpillar") is attested as far back as Old English (c. 1000 in the writings of Ælfric) and as late as 1398 (as malshaue). Mæl (meaning roughly meal as in mealworm) is attested only in the compound mælsceafa, but it has many well-documented cognates in other Germanic languages such as Old Icelandic and Swedish. The second component shares its root with shave. The ultimately Latin-derived "caterpillar" [13] first showed up in English c. 1440 as catyrpel.
  • mælsceafa: "caterpillar" (see lēafwyrm)
  • mereswīn: "dolphin," "porpoise," literally "sea swine." It is attested in Bald's Leechbook from the 10th century. The OED does not list "mereswine" as archaic or obsolete, but the last citation given is from Frank Charles Bowen's 1929 book "Sea slang: a dictionary of the old-timers' expressions and epithets." It does however list sea-swine "porpoise" (last citation 1884) as "obsolete except dialectic." "Dolphin" entered English in the 12th century and it is ultimately from Ancient Greek [14].
Cf. German Schweinswal (Lit. Pig's/ Swine's whale, porpoise).
Cf. German Scharbe, common Scandinavian skarv.
  • ryðða: "mastiff." The word "mastiff" appeared c. 1387 and it is ultimately of Latin origin [17].
  • sisemūs: "dormouse." Dormouse (first attested in English in c. 1425) is not a combination of door and mouse. Some lexicographers (including the editorial staff of the AHD) think it came from Anglo-Norman dormeus "inclined to sleep, hiberating," which is ultimately from Latin dormire "to sleep" [18]. The OED, citing the Dutch words slaep-ratte "sleep rat" and slaep-muys "sleep mouse," acknowledges the possibility of this derivation, but also point to the possibility that the first element is related to Old Norse dár "benumbed."
  • wildhænn: "pheasant" (see wōrhana below).
  • wōrhana: "pheasant" "Pheasant" appeared in English in 1299 (as fesaund) and is ultimately from Ancient Greek [19] (see also: wildhænn).
  • wyrm: "serpent, snake, dragon, insect" The OED lists all entries of wyrm/worm with this meaning as archaic and the latest citation given with this meaning is from William Morris's 1867 book "The life and death of Jason". The more specific, modern sense of worm as earthworm, ringworm, tapeworm etc. goes back as far as 1000.
Cf. Swedish orm, Nynorsk orm (snake, serpent).

Body parts

  • earsgang: "anus" The word anus did not enter English until 1658 and it was adopted directly from Latin with no intermediary. The OED says that "arse" (the ears of earsgang is its etymon) is "obsolete in polite use" and the AHD tags "ass" as "vulgar slang." [20] Yet as late as 1704 Jonathan Swift wrote ("The Battle of the Books") "after your Arse" which simply meant "behind you." (see also: setl, ūtgang).
  • feorhbold: "body" (see also: feorhhold, feorhhus, līc, līcfæt, līchoma)
  • feorhhold: "body" (see also: feorhbold, feorhhus, līc, līcfæt, līchoma)
  • feorhhus: "body" (see also: feorhbold, feorhhold, līc, līcfæt, līchoma)
  • hrēsel: "radius" The word "radius' is of Latin origin and its specific anatomical meaning was first seen in English in 1615.
  • līc: "body," "trunk," "torso." Līc (at various times spelled like, lich, lych, lyche and lyke) is attested as far back as c. 900 and the last citation given with this more general meaning it is from c. 1400. However, the last citation with the meaning of "corpse" is from 1895. The word now survives only in obscure compounds such as "lych-gate" [21], "lych-owl" (so called because its screeching was thought by some to portend death), and "lyke-wake" (the watch kept over a dead body at night). The word is etymologically related to "like," so its original meaning is thought to be "form," "shape." [22]. (see also: feorhbold, feorhhold, feorhhus, līcfæt, līchoma)
Cf. German Leiche, Dutch lijk, Swedish and Norwegian lik, Danish lig (all "corpse").
  • līcfæt: "body" (see also: feorhbold, feorhhold, feorhhus, līc, līchoma)
  • līchoma: "body" (see also: feorhbold, feorhhold, feorhhus, līc, līcfæt)
Cf. German Leichnam (corpse), Dutch lichaam, Swedish lekamen, Nynorsk lekam, Danish legeme.
  • lið: "joint, limb" Lið (later spelled lith) is attested as early as c. 900 and the latest citation in the OED is 1872. The OED considers all modern occurrences to be archaic or dialectic. The word limb, also of Germanic origin, has come to replace lið.
Cf. German Glied, Dutch lid, Swedish and Danish led, Norwegian ledd.
  • midhriðre: "diaphragm"
  • nebb: "face" The OED gives modern definitions (Scottish, Irish English, Northern English) for "neb" such as "bird's beak" and "an animal's nose," but the last citation given with the meaning of "a person's face" is from 1525. The AHD similarly does not include the human face as a definition [23]. (see also: ondwlita, onsīen)
Cf. Dutch neb (beak).
  • ōcusta: "armpit" (see also: ōxn). Armpit first shows up in English as arme-pytt in c. 1400.
    Probably related to such words as axis/axle and (derived) Latin axilla (armpit) etc. from PIE *aks- or similar.
    Has survived as English dialectal "oxter" (armpit/arm).
  • ondwlita: "face" (see also: nebb, onsīen)
Cf. German Antlitz, Swedish anlete.
  • onsīen: "face" (see also: nebb, ondwlita)
Cf. German Angesicht, Dutch aangezicht.
  • ōxn: "armpit" (see also: ōcusta)
  • setl: "anus" (see also: earsgang, ūtgang)
  • teors: "penis" (see also: wæpen). Penis did not enter English until 1578. It was borrowed directly from Latin.
  • ūtgang: "anus" (see also: earsgang, setl)
Lit. "exit", "out-path", Cf. German Ausgang, Dutch uitgang (exit).


  • æppelfealu: "orange" lit. "apple-pale"(see also: geolurēad)
  • basurēadan: "purple" lit. purple-red (see also: weolucbasu)
  • geolurēad: "orange", lit."yellow-red" (see also: æppelfealu)
  • weolucbasu: "purple" lit. whelk-purple (see also: basurēadan)


  • andwurde, andwyrde: "to answer" A combination of prefix and-(against, related to Greek anti-) and "wurde"(word), andwurde was replaced by andswerian (answer), (compound word of same prefix and "swear", probably common Germanic, attested at least before 900 CE) by the end of the 12th century.
Cf. German Antwort, Dutch antwoord.
  • æðele: "noble" also æðelu "noble descent," æðeling "hero," ēðel "native land, home." Once a very common set of words with many extant compounds, this word group exists in Modern English only in the Germanic loanwords edelweiss [24] and Adelaide. The Latin-derived "noble" and "gentle" (in its original English meaning of "noble") both appeared in English c. 1230.
Cf. German edel, Dutch edel.
  • ge-: prefix used extensively in Old English, originally meaning "with", but later gaining several other usages, such as being used grammatically for the perfect, etc. Only survived in the archaic "gemot" (Meeting, cf. Witenagemot) and "yclept" (with later form y-). Also found in the rare German loanwords gemütlich and gemütlichkeit.
Cf. German ge-, Dutch ge-,
  • gerīm: "number" (see worn)
  • getæl: "number" From prefix ge- and tæl. Besides the phrase "to tell time"[4], mainly survived in English with meanings related to speech (tell, tale). Meanings related to numbers are found in Germanic cognates. Cf. teller. (see worn)
Cf. German Zahl, Dutch getal, Swedish and Danish tal, Norwegian tall.
  • hæmed: "sex"
  • liger: "sex"
  • mid: "with" Mid was used in Old English in nearly all instances where "with" is used in Modern English. It is attested in the earliest Old English manuscripts and the latest use cited in the OED is 1547 but this late example is possibly an intentional archaism. Mid had been superseded by "with" by the end of the 14th century. If the beginning part of midwife is a reflex of this ancient preposition (neither OED or AHD absolutely affirm this derivation [25]), it is the only trace of the "with" meaning left in Modern English. The word is probably originally derived from an Indo-European root meaning "middle", and related to the English prefix mid-, Latin medium, etc. Likely related to Greek μετα (meta) "in the midst of, among, with, after".
Cf. German mit, Dutch met, Common Scandinavian med.
  • worn (m): "number" "Number" is derived from Latin numerus and it first appeared in English (as noumbre) c. 1300. French seems to be responsible for the word's first introduction, but its use was no doubt reinforced by its presence in other Germanic languages.
  • ymb(e): "around, on both sides" Ymbe was both a preposition and a prefix and the only Modern English word that derives directly from it is the little-used Ember day [5], a Christian event. The Germanic loanwords ombudsman [26] and umlaut [27] come from the same Germanic root. It is also related more distantly to Latin words starting with ambi- and Greek words starting with amphi- [28].
Cf. German um, Dutch om, Common Scandinavian om, but Icelandic um.
  • wīġ: "war," "combat," "martial power." There were many words of this base in Old English: wīgan "to fight," ġewegan "to fight," wīġend "warrior." This group was used used extensively in Old English poetry due in part to the frequent alliterative need for a word starting with w. It is from the same base as Latin vincere "to conquer." [29] Other than the archaic, Old Norse-derived "wight" [30], this group of words is lost to Modern English.
Cf. Swedish envig (holmgang).

See also


  1. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000. Entry: Lizard.]. Accessed Oct. 2007.
  2. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000. Entry: Burbot. [1] Accessed Oct. 2007
  3. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000. Entry: Dove. [2] Accessed Oct. 2007
  4. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary, tell (v.). Confirms that phrase is from the original sense.
  5. ^ Ember Day. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000

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