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The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English (2021)

by Hana Videen

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2182123,791 (3.97)9
"An entertaining and illuminating collection of weird, wonderful, and downright baffling words from the origins of English--and what they reveal about the lives of the earliest English speakers. Old English is the language you think you know until you actually hear or see it. Unlike Shakespearean English or even Chaucer's Middle English, Old English--the language of Beowulf--defies comprehension by untrained modern readers. Used throughout much of Britain more than a thousand years ago, it is rich with words that haven't changed (like word), others that are unrecognizable (such as neorxnawang, or paradise), and some that are mystifying even in translation (gafol-fisc, or tax-fish). In this delightful book, Hana Videen gathers a glorious trove of these gems and uses them to illuminate the lives of the earliest English speakers. We discover a world where choking on a bit of bread might prove your guilt, where fiend-ship was as likely as friendship, and where you might grow up to be a laughter-smith. The Wordhord takes readers on a journey through Old English words and customs related to practical daily activities (eating, drinking, learning, working); relationships and entertainment; health and the body, mind, and soul; the natural world (animals, plants, and weather); locations and travel (the source of some of the most evocative words in Old English); mortality, religion, and fate; and the imagination and storytelling. Each chapter ends with its own "wordhord"--a list of its Old English terms, with definitions and pronunciations. Entertaining and enlightening, The Wordhord reveals the magical roots of the language you're reading right now: you'll never look at--or speak--English in the same way again"--… (more)
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This is a great concept, and I like how the book is organized: each chapter covers a theme (food and drink, weather, etc.), and ends with a wordhord that brings together all the Old English words used in the chapter. Pronunciation guides are provided too, making this part especially fun to read aloud. It seems like there isn’t a lot of Old English literature kicking around, but there are multiple translations of what does exist, and I really liked how Videen compared different translators’ choices and rationales to illustrate how one word can have multiple nuances. Even more intriguing are the words for which no great translation exists because they’re used only once in the extant literature (these are called hapaxes, great new word).

I will say this is probably a book that’s better for flipping through over an extended period, rather than rushing to finish because you’re on a library deadline. But if you like learning new words or are interested in this period of history, I definitely recommend it. I now want to dig out my two translations of Beowulf! (I have the Seamus Heaney and the Maria Dahvana Headley translations.) ( )
  rabbitprincess | Feb 25, 2023 |
This is a delightful compendium of various Old English words which both shows us some of the continuities in the language over more than a thousand years—sumer, wulf, leornung-mann, ears-endu—but also something of how different the mentalities of the inhabitants of early medieval England were. It matters that for these long ago English people, a "mearc-stapa" ("boundary stepper", one on the fringes of society) could be thought of as monstrous, or that there was no word that meant "nature", only "sceaft" ("creation"), an awesome and often terrifying place haunted by elves and other inhuman beings.

There are a couple of slips about history here and there that may be the result of sloppy editing more than anything else (e.g. it was technically the Feast of the Conception, not of the Immaculate Conception, in the Middle Ages; in a quill pen, the "longest hollow sections" of the feather don't "serve as barrels for holding ink", you cut a small slit at the tip of the pen which lets you take up a little ink at a time using capillary action). Still, an enjoyable compendium of "hord-wynn" ("hoard-joy") that's perfect for dipping into if you find pleasure in language. ( )
  siriaeve | Sep 11, 2022 |
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Dedication
For Mum and Dad, who unlocked my first words,
and for mīne mōdlufe Ryan
First words
I
The Language You Thought You Knew
Ye Old English?
Wander down a small alley off London's Fleet Street and you'll find a pub with a crooked, creaky charm. Its black and white sign says 'Rebuilt 1667', the year after the Great Fire gutted England's largest city. Go inside for a pint in its wood-panelled dining room, where literary greats like Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickins and Mark Twain ate their fill. This may not be London's oldest pub, but it sure looks the part, with atmospheric vaulted cellars that supposedly date back to medieval times. And if you harbour any doubts concerning the pub's antiquity, its name sets you straight: 'Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese '.
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Words are valuable in and of themselves. Each word carries a story, an entire history of thoughts.
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"An entertaining and illuminating collection of weird, wonderful, and downright baffling words from the origins of English--and what they reveal about the lives of the earliest English speakers. Old English is the language you think you know until you actually hear or see it. Unlike Shakespearean English or even Chaucer's Middle English, Old English--the language of Beowulf--defies comprehension by untrained modern readers. Used throughout much of Britain more than a thousand years ago, it is rich with words that haven't changed (like word), others that are unrecognizable (such as neorxnawang, or paradise), and some that are mystifying even in translation (gafol-fisc, or tax-fish). In this delightful book, Hana Videen gathers a glorious trove of these gems and uses them to illuminate the lives of the earliest English speakers. We discover a world where choking on a bit of bread might prove your guilt, where fiend-ship was as likely as friendship, and where you might grow up to be a laughter-smith. The Wordhord takes readers on a journey through Old English words and customs related to practical daily activities (eating, drinking, learning, working); relationships and entertainment; health and the body, mind, and soul; the natural world (animals, plants, and weather); locations and travel (the source of some of the most evocative words in Old English); mortality, religion, and fate; and the imagination and storytelling. Each chapter ends with its own "wordhord"--a list of its Old English terms, with definitions and pronunciations. Entertaining and enlightening, The Wordhord reveals the magical roots of the language you're reading right now: you'll never look at--or speak--English in the same way again"--

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