Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten—Old English translation

Þa Bremniscan gliwmenn (Gebroðor Grimm)

German and modern English text

Þær wæs iu sum mann ðe hæfde ænne assan þe þa saccas fela geara to mylne lustfullice aboren hæfde.  Ac nu wæs ðæs assan cræft æt ende, swa ðæt he ne deah na ma to geweorcum.  Þa ðuhte þæm yrðlinge þæt he hine ageafe.  Ac þa þa se assa ða yfele geþeaht ðæs yrðlinges oncneow, þa gang he forð ond ongan on þone weg to Bremnebyrge, ðær he wolde to gliwmenn weorðan.
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Wormwood and vermouth are the same word

Many people are aware of the link between wormwood and absinthe. As names for the plant Artemisia absinthium, they are synonyms. A. absinthium has been used for many centuries to add a bitter flavor to various concoctions, especially wines and liqueurs. It has even taken the place of hops in some beer recipes.
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When as a naive 8th-grader I first trudged my long and arduous way through J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I understood “eleventy-one” (111) to be a charming neologism on the part of the author—meant to be a quirk either of Bilbo Baggins’ speech or of Hobbit-language as a whole.

In fact, this usage is a borrowing from Old English, where the -ty suffix (formerly -tig, as it still appears in Dutch) can be appended to any number all the way up to 12:

  • tīen – 10
  • twēntig – 20
  • þrītig – 30
  • fēowertig – 40
  • fīftig – 50
  • sixtig – 60
  • (hund)seofontig – 70
  • (hund)eahtatig – 80
  • (hund)nigontig – 90
  • (hund)tēontig (lit. ‘tenty’) – 100
  • (hund)endlefontig (lit. ‘eleventy’) – 110
  • (hund)twelftig (lit. ‘twelvety’) – 120

For multiples of 10 between 70 and 120, the prefix hund- lit. ‘hundred’ could be added for emphasis; but keep in mind that this prefix does not in this case mean ‘hundred.’ It only signifies a large number:

Se sumor hafaþ hundnygontig daga … Se winter hæfaþ tū and hundnigontig daga.

The summer has 90 days … The winter has 2-and-90 days. (Shrine 83.33; 146.7)

The old Germanic counting system was essentially a syncretism of base-10 and base-12 features, and had several “big” numbers that could be counted to:

  • 10 × 10 = 100 (one [short] hundred)
  • 10 × 12 = 120 (long hundred; short gross)
  • 12 × 12 = 144 (one gross)

The significance of 12 as a counting base in Germanic parallel to base-10 is also manifested in the fact that the words for 11, 12 are formed differently from 13–19:

  • eleven < *ain-lib- lit. ‘one left (after a full count of 10)’
  • twelve < *twai-lib- lit. ‘two left (after a full count of 10)’
  • thirteen, etc. < *þrī-tehun- lit. ‘three (and) 10’

A base-20 system also had currency around ancient Europe, which was primarily associated with the Celtic peoples. It accounts for many of the idiosyncrasies of the modern Gaelic (Irish and Scottish), Welsh, and French (via Gaulish) counting systems. But that will be the subject of a future post!

(Featured image by Joe Gilronan)

Etymology: archaic English sweven ‘dream’

An obsolete word for ‘dream’ in English is sweven. Here is an example of it “in the wild,” at the beginning of Book I of Chaucer’s House of Fame (c. 1380):

God turne us every drem to goode!
For hyt is wonder, be the roode,
To my wyt, what causeth swevenes
Eyther on morwes or on evenes,
And why th’effect folweth of somme, 5
And of somme hit shal never come;
Why that is an avision
And why this a revelacion,
Why this a drem, why that a sweven,
And noght to every man lyche even. 10 (House of Fame 1.1–10)

The word comes from Old English swefn ‘sleep, dream’ and is related to two verbs, swefan ‘sleep’ (*swebaną) and its causative swebban ‘put to sleep’ (*swabjaną), which also has the meaning ‘kill’:

forþan ic hine sweorde swebban nelle
for I do not wish to kill him with a sword. (Beowulf 679)

These terms go back to the PIE root *swep- ‘sleep,’ which has some very familiar reflexes outside of Germanic:

Greek ὕπνος ‘sleep’ (cf. hypnosishypnotism; also Ὕπνος Hypnos, the personification of Sleep and brother of Θάνατος Thanatos, ‘Death’)

Sleep and His Half-brother Death by John William Waterhouse (1874)

Latin sopor (cf. soporific) and somnus (cf. insomnia, somnambulate) < *sopnos < *swép-nos (the same formation that gives us OE swefn via Proto-Germanic *swefnaz); cf. Spanish sueño

In Persian, where PIE *sw- > xw-, the noun is خواب xwāb ‘sleep, dream’; this word is loaned into Hindi/Urdu and some other languages in the same region. Internet lore—tough to confirm, however—maintains that Leonardo DiCaprio’s Inception character Dom Cobb gets his surname from this word.


Etymology: weird

(Featured image: Close-up of the Franks Casket likely depicting the Norns)

Old English wyrd—whether decreed by pagan forces or by the Christian God—generally has the meaning ‘fate, destiny.’ It literally means ‘that which becomes, happens’ and reflects Germanic *wurdiz, related to the verb weorþan ‘turn, become.’ (The þ-d alternation is due to Verner’s law.)

Anglo-Saxon poetry is full of gnomic pronouncements about wyrd, such as this famous one, which closes the introductory lament of The Wanderer:

ƿyrd bið ful aræd
Fate is entirely set in its ways! (l. 5b)

The underlying PIE root is *wert- ‘turn,’ and the verb weorþan has such Indo-European cognates as Latin verto ’cause to turn’ (its passive participle versus ‘turned [towards]’) and Sanskrit vartate ‘turns, is turned.’

Germanic cognates of wyrd ‘fate’ are abundant in older languages. The Old High German Hildebrandslied offers the gem wēwurt skihit

ƿelaga nu ƿaltant got quad hiltibrant ƿeƿurt ſkihit
“Well now, Almighty God,” quoth Hildebrant, “misfortune occurs!” (ll. 48–49)

—in which wē-wurt is literally “woe-weird” or “sorrowful-fate.” (Skihit is modern German geschehen ‘happen.’) Thus the phrase is essentially an Old High German “shit happens.”


In North Germanic, *wurdiz ‘fate’ becomes Urðr, one of the mythological Norns, the three sisters who spin the threads of fate for mortals and gods alike. Urðr, who comes to have the past as her realm (where urðr signifies ‘that which has [already] happened’), is accompanied by Verðandi (lit. ‘that which is happening’; from the same root as urðr) who governs the present, and Skuld (lit. ‘that which must happen’) whose domain is the future.

This historical sense of wyrd—’fate, destiny’—is gradually lost in the centuries following the Old English period. In early Modern English, the word survives in the fossilized expression weird sisters—that is, “fate sisters”—a name for three legendary witches evocative of the Norns of mythology.

The Shakespearean weird sisters in a Doctor Who episode

It is in fact William Shakespeare’s use of the term weird sisters in Macbeth that breathed new life into the word. (Wayward sisters, another name for these witches, may be a folk etymology of weird sisters by a population that was unfamiliar with the original term.) Thus, associated with the Norn-like trio of legend, the word was eventually understood to mean “witchy” or “eerie,” whence the modern meaning.

The weird sisters of Shakespeare predate these ones by some centuries:



Riddle 47 of the Exeter Book breaks from tradition in revealing its solution in the first word. The poem describes a bookworm—moððe ‘moth’—that has eaten through a manuscript page, recklessly devouring some of the written text along with it. Alliterating sounds are boldfaced:

Moððe word fræt.    Me þæt þuhte
wrætlicu wyrd,    þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn,
þæt se wyrm forswealg    wera gied sumes,
þeof in þystro    þrymfæstne cwide
ond þæs strangan staþol.    Stælgiest ne wæs 5
wihte þy gleawra    þe he þam wordum swealg.

1   Moððe fem ō lit. ‘moth’—word neut a; can be singular or plural ‘word(s)’—fræt V fretan ‘devoured’ cf. fret, Ger fressen < for-etan ‘eat up’—þæt looks ahead to l. 3 þætþuhte 1 þyncan ‘seemed’

2   wrætlicu fem adj wrǣt-līc ‘curious’—wyrd ‘fate’ = ‘happening’—gefrægn III ge-frignan ‘learned, found out’

3   forswealg III for-swelgan ‘swallowed up’—wera … sumes ‘of one of men’ = ‘of a certain man’—gied neut ja giedd ‘song, poem’

4   þystro fem ō þīestru ‘darkness’ cf. Ger düster, finsterþrymfæstne masc adj ‘majestic, illustrious’—cwide ‘sentence, saying’ < *kʷidiz; related to *kʷeþaną ‘speak’

5   staþol ‘fixed position, foundation’; þæs strangan staþol ‘the foundation of that strong one’ refers to the physical page, the foundation on which the mighty word stands—stælgiest ‘thievish guest’; the first element, from stelan, implies not only material theft but the creature’s flitting about unnoticed; for this semantic development, cf. nimble from OE niman ‘take’ and furtive from Lat fur ‘thief’

6   wihte ‘by a thing’ = ‘at all’—þy … þe is a correlative pair; the second þe is relative = ‘by the fact that’—gleawra masc adj glēaw comp ‘wiser’—þam wordum dat pl; read as the object of swealg

A moth devoured words. Methought it
a curious occurrence, when I heard of that wonder,
that the worm had swallowed up a certain man’s poem—
a thief in the darkness [swallowed up] an illustrious sentence
and the strong thing’s foundation. The thievish guest was 5
none the wiser for having swallowed those words.

(Featured image by Emir O. Filipović)