Category Archives: Motivation

Concise Diction of Middle English – A.D. 1150 -1580

By the
Rev. A. L. Mayhew, M.A.
Of Wadham College, Oxford
Rev. Walter W. Skeat
Litt. D.; LL.D. Edin.; M.A. Oxon.
Erlington & Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon
in the University of Cambridge

“THESE our Ancient Words here set down, I trust will for this time satisfie the Reader.”
R. VERSTEGAN, Restitution of Decayed Intelligence, ch. vii (at the end)

“Authentic words be given, or none!”
WORDSWORTH, Lines on Macpherson’s Ossian

At the Clarendon Press
All rights reserved


The present work is intended to meet, in some measure, the requirements of those who wish to make some study of Middle-English, and who find a difficulty in obtaining such assistance as will enable them to find out the meanings and etymologies of the words most essential to their purpose.

The best Middle-English Dictionary, that by Dr. Mätzner of Berlin, has only reached the end of the letter H; and it is probable that it will not be completed for many years. The only Middle-English Dictionary that has been carried on to the end of the alphabet is that by the late Dr. Stratmann, of Krefeld. This is a valuable work, and is indispensable for the more advanced student. However, the present work will still supply a deficiency, as it differs from Stratmann’s Dictionary in many particulars. We have chosen as our Main Words, where possible, the most typical of the forms or spellings of the period of Chaucer and Piers Plowman; in Stratmann, on the other hand, the form chosen as Main Word is generally the oldest form in which it appears, frequently one of the twelfth century. Moreover, with regard to authorities, we refer in the case of the great majority of our forms to a few, cheap, easily accessible works, whereas Stratmann’s authorities are mainly the numerous and expensive publications of the Early English Text Society. Lastly, we have paid special attention to the French element in Middle-English, whereas Stratmann is somewhat deficient in respect of words of French origin1. The book which has generally been found of most assistance to the learner is probably Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words; but this is not specially confined to the Middle-English period, and the plan of it differs in several respects from that of the present work.

The scope of this volume will be best understood by an explanation of vithe circumstances that gave rise to it. Some useful and comparatively inexpensive volumes illustrative of the Middle-English period have been issued by the Clarendon Press; all of which are furnished with glossaries, explaining all the important words, with exact references to the passages wherein the words occur. In particular, the three useful hand-books containing Specimens of English (from 1150 down to 1580) together supply no less than sixty-seven characteristic extracts from the most important literary monuments of this period; and the three glossaries to these books together fill more than 370 pages of closely-printed type in double columns. The idea suggested itself that it would be highly desirable to bring the very useful information thus already collected under one alphabet, and this has now been effected. At the same time, a reference has in every case been carefully given to the particular Glossarial Index which registers each form here cited, so that it is perfectly easy for any one who consults our book to refer, not merely to the particular Index thus noted, but to the references given in that Index; and so, by means of such references, to find every passage referred to, with its proper context. Moreover the student only requires, for this purpose, a small array of the text-books in the Clarendon Press Series, instead of a more or less complete set of editions of Middle-English texts, the possession of which necessitates a considerable outlay of money. By this plan, so great a compression of information has been achieved, that a large number of the articles give a summary such as can be readily expanded to a considerable length, by the exercise of a very little trouble; and thus the work is practically as full of material as if it had been three or four times its present size. A couple of examples will shew what this really means.

At p. 26 is the following entry:—

Bi-hestesb. promise, S, S2, C2, P; byheste, S2; beheste, S2; byhest, S2; bihese, S; biheest, W; bihesepl., S.—AS. be-hǽs.’

By referring to the respective indexes here cited, such as S (= Glossary to Specimens of English, Part I), and the like, we easily expand this article into the following:—

Bi-hestesb. promise, S (9. 19); S2 (1a. 184); C2 (B 37, 41, 42, F 698); P (3. 126); byheste, S2 (18b. 25); beheste, S2 (14a. 3); byhest, S2 (12. 57, 18b. 9, [where it may also be explained by grant]); bihese, S (where it is used as a plural); biheest, W (promise, command, Lk. xxiv. 49, Rom. iv. 13; pl. biheestis, Heb. xi. 13); bihese, S (pl. behests, promises, 4d. 55).—AS. behǽs.’

In order to exhibit the full meaning of this—which requires no further viiexplanation to those who have in hand the books denoted by S, S2, &c.—it would be necessary to print the article at considerable length, as follows:—

Bihestesb. promise; “dusi biheste” a foolish promise, (extract from) Ancren Riwle, l. 19; “and wel lute wule hulde þe biheste þat he nom,” (extract from) Robert of Gloucester, l. 184; “holdeth your biheste,” Chaucer, Introd. to Man of Law’s Prologue, l. 37; “biheste is dette,” same, l. 41; “al my biheste” same, l. 42; “or breken his biheste” Chaucer, sequel to Squieres Tale, l. 698; “þorw fals biheste,” Piers Plowman, Text B, Pass. iii, l. 126; “to vol-vulle (fulfil) þat byheste” Trevisa (extract from), lib. vi. cap. 29, l. 25; “the lond of promyssioun, or of beheste,” Prol. to Mandeville’s Travels, l. 3; “wiþ fair by-hest,” William and the Werwolf, l. 57; “þe byhest (promise, or grant) of oþere menne kyngdom,” Trevisa, lib. vi. cap. 29, l. 9; “y schal sende the biheest of my fadir in-to ȝou,” Wyclif, Luke xxiv. 49; “not bi the lawe is biheest to Abraham,” Wycl. Rom. iv. 13; “whanne the biheestis weren not takun,” Wycl. Heb. xi. 13; “longenge to godes bihese” Old Eng. Homilies, Dominica iv. post Pascha, l. 55.’

We thus obtain fifteen excellent examples of the use of this word, with the full context and an exact reference (easily verified) in every case. And, in the above instance, all the quotations lie within the compass of the eleven texts in the Clarendon Press Series denoted, respectively, by S, S2, S3, C, C2, C3, W, W2, P, H, and G.

The original design was to make use of these text-books only; but it was so easy to extend it by including examples to be obtained from other Glossaries and Dictionaries, that a considerable selection of interesting words was added from these, mainly for the sake of illustrating the words in the Clarendon text-books. These illustrative words can be fully or partially verified by those who happen to possess all or some of the works cited, or they can safely be taken on trust, as really occurring there, any mistake being due to such authority.

A second example will make this clearer. ‘Brantadj. steep, high, MD, HD; brent, JD; brentestsuperl. S2.—AS. brant (bront); cp. Swed. brant, Icel. brattr.’

Omitting the etymology, the above information is given in two short lines. Those who possess the ‘Specimens of English’ will easily find the example of the superl. brentest. By consulting Mätzner’s, Halliwell’s, and Jamieson’s Dictionaries, further information can be obtained, and the full article will appear as follows:—

Brantadj. steep, high, MD [brantbrentadj. ags. brand, arduus, viiialtus, altn. brattr, altschw. branter, schw. brantbratt, dän, brat, sch. brent, nordengl. Diall. brant: cf. “brant, steepe,” Manipulus Vocabulorum, p. 25: steil, hoch.—“Apon the bald Bucifelon brant up he sittes,” King Alexander, ed. Stevenson, p. 124; “Thir mountaynes ware als brant upritȝe as thay had bene walles,” MS. quoted in Halliwell’s Dict., p. 206; “Hyȝe bonkkes & brent,” Gawain and the Grene Knight, l. 2165; “Bowed to þe hyȝ bonk þer brentest hit wern,” Alliterative Poems, ed. Morris, Poem B, l. 379]; HD [brant, steep. North: “Brant against Flodden Hill,” explained by Nares from Ascham, “up the steep side;” cf. Brit. Bibl. i. 132, same as brandly?—“And thane thay com tille wonder heghe mountaynes, and it semed as the toppes had towched the firmament; and thir mountaynes were als brant upriȝte as thay had bene walles, so that ther was na clymbyng upon thame,” Life of Alexander, MS. Lincoln, fol. 38]; JD [brentadj. high, straight, upright; “My bak, that sumtyme brent hes bene, Now cruikis lyk are camok tre,” Maitland Poems, p. 193; followed by a discussion extending to more than 160 lines of small print, which we forbear to quote]; brentestsuperl. S2. 13. 379 [“And bowed to þe hyȝ bonk þer brentest hit were (MS. wern),” Allit. Poems, l. 379; already cited in Mätzner, above].’

The work, in fact, contains a very large collection of words, in many variant forms, appearing in English literature and in Glossaries between A.D. 1150 and A.D. 1580. The glossaries in S2, S3 (Specimens of English, 1298-1393, and 1394-1579) have furnished a considerable number of words belonging to the Scottish dialect, which most dictionaries (excepting of course that of Jamieson) omit.

The words are so arranged that even the beginner will, in general, easily find what he wants. We have included in one article, together with the Main Word, all the variant spellings of the glossaries, as well as the etymological information. We have also given in alphabetical order numerous cross-references to facilitate the finding of most of the variant forms, and to connect them with the Main Word. In this way, the arrangement is at once etymological and alphabetical—adapted to the needs of the student of the language and of the student of the literature.

The meanings of the words are given in modern English, directly after the Main Word. The variant forms, as given in their alphabetical position, are frequently also explained, thus saving (in such cases) the trouble of a cross-reference, if the meaning of the word is alone required.

An attempt is made in most cases to give the etymology, so far at least as to shew the immediate source of the Middle-English word. Especial pains have been taken with the words of French origin, which ixform so large a portion of the vocabulary of the Middle-English period. In many cases the AF (Anglo-French) forms are cited, from my list of English Words found in Anglo-French, as published for the Philological Society in 1882.

The student of English who wishes to trace back the history of a word still in use can, in general, find the Middle-English form in Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary, and will then be able to consult the present work in order to obtain further instances of its early use.

The relative share of the authors in the preparation of this work is easily explained. The whole of it in its present form (with the exception of the letter N) was compiled, prepared, and written out for press by Mr. Mayhew. The original plan was, however, my own; and I began by writing out the letter N (since augmented) by way of experiment and model. It will thus be seen that Mr. Mayhew’s share of the work has been incomparably the larger, involving all that is most laborious. On the other hand, I may claim that much of the labour was mine also, at a much earlier stage, as having originally compiled or revised the glossaries marked S2, S3, C2, C3, W, W2, P, and G, as well as the very full glossarial indexes cited as B, PP, and WA, and the dictionary cited as SkD. The important glossary marked S was, however, originally the work of Dr. Morris (since re-written by Mr. Mayhew), and may, in a sense, be said to be the back-bone of the whole, from its supplying a very large number of the most curious and important early forms.

The material used has been carefully revised by both authors, so that they must be held to be jointly responsible for the final form in which the whole is now offered to the public.

1. A new and thoroughly revised edition of Stratmann’s Dictionary is being prepared by Mr. Henry Bradley, for the Delegates of the Clarendon Press.

Note On The Phonology Of Middle-English.

One great difficulty in finding a Middle-English word in this, or any other, Dictionary is due to the frequent variation of the symbols denoting the vowel-sounds. Throughout the whole of the period to which the work relates the symbols iand y, in particular, are constantly interchanged, whether they stand alone, or form parts of diphthongs. Consequently, words which are spelt with one of these symbols in a given text must frequently be looked for as if spelt with the other; i.e. the pairs of symbols i and yai and ayei and eyoi and oyui and uy, must be looked upon as likely to be used indifferently, one for the other. For further information, the student should consult the remarks upon Phonology in the Specimens of English (1150 to 1300), 2nd ed., p. xxv. For those who xhave not time or opportunity to do this, a few brief notes may perhaps suffice.

The following symbols are frequently confused, or are employed as equivalent to each other because they result from the same sound in the Oldest English or in Anglo-French:—


ao;—aæeea;—eeoie;—ouou;—(all originally short).

aæeaeee;—eeeeoie;—ooooa;—uouui;—(all long).

These are the most usual interchanges of symbols, and will commonly suffice for practical purposes, in cases where the cross-references fail. If the word be not found after such substitutions have been allowed for, it may be taken for granted that the Dictionary does not contain it. As a fact, the Dictionary only contains a considerable number of such words as are most common, or (for some special reason) deserve notice; and it is at once conceded that it is but a small hand-book, which does not pretend to exhibit in all its fulness the extraordinarily copious vocabulary of our language at an important period of its history. The student wishing for complete information will find (in course of time) that the New English Dictionary which is being brought out by the Clarendon Press will contain all words found in our literature since the year 1100.

Of course variations in the vowel-sounds are also introduced, in the case of strong verbs, by the usual ‘gradation’ due to their method of conjugation. To meet this difficulty in some measure, numerous (but not exhaustive) cross-references have been introduced, as when, e.g. ‘Bar, bare’ is given, with a cross-reference to Beren. Further help in this respect is to be had from the table of 183 strong verbs given at pp. lxix-lxxxi of the Preface to Part I of the Specimens of English (2nd edition); see, in particular, the alphabetical index to the same, at pp. lxxxi, lxxxii. The same Preface further contains some account of the three principal Middle-English dialects (p. xl), and Outlines of the Grammar (p. xlv). It also explains the meaning of the symbols þ, ð (both used for th), ȝ (used for y initially, gh medially, and gh or z finally), with other necessary information.


From Gutenberg: Concise Dictionary of Middle English

I find this completely fascinating.

I should have been a linguist.

All Things Considered by G. K. Chesterton

The Case for the Ephemeral

I cannot understand the people who take literature seriously; but I can love them, and I do. Out of my love I warn them to keep clear of this book. It is a collection of crude and shapeless papers upon current or rather flying subjects; and they must be published pretty much as they stand. They were written, as a rule, at the last moment; they were handed in the moment before it was too late, and I do not think that our commonwealth would have been shaken to its foundations if they had been handed in the moment after. They must go out now, with all their imperfections on their head, or rather on mine; for their vices are too vital to be improved with a blue pencil, or with anything I can think of, except dynamite.

Their chief vice is that so many of them are very serious; because I had no time to make them flippant. It is so easy to be solemn; it is so hard to be frivolous. Let any honest reader shut his eyes for a few moments, and approaching the secret tribunal of his soul, ask himself whether he would really rather be asked in the next two hours to write the front page of the Times, which is full of long leading articles, or the front page of Tit-Bits, which is full of short jokes. If the reader is the fine conscientious fellow I take him for, he will at once reply that he would rather on the spur of the moment write ten Times articles than one Tit-Bits joke. Responsibility, a heavy and cautious responsibility of speech, is the easiest thing in the world; anybody can do it. That is why so many tired, elderly, and wealthy men go in for politics. They are responsible, because they have not the strength of mind left to be irresponsible. It is more dignified to sit still than to dance the Barn Dance. It is also easier. So in these easy pages I keep myself on the whole on the level of the Times: it is only occasionally that I leap upwards almost to the level of Tit-Bits.

I resume the defence of this indefensible book. These articles have another disadvantage arising from the scurry in which they were written; they are too long-winded and elaborate. One of the great disadvantages of hurry is that it takes such a long time. If I have to start for High-gate this day week, I may perhaps go the shortest way. If I have to start this minute, I shall almost certainly go the longest. In these essays (as I read them over) I feel frightfully annoyed with myself for not getting to the point more quickly; but I had not enough leisure to be quick. There are several maddening cases in which I took two or three pages in attempting to describe an attitude of which the essence could be expressed in an epigram; only there was no time for epigrams. I do not repent of one shade of opinion here expressed; but I feel that they might have been expressed so much more briefly and precisely. For instance, these pages contain a sort of recurring protest against the boast of certain writers that they are merely recent. They brag that their philosophy of the universe is the last philosophy or the new philosophy, or the advanced and progressive philosophy. I have said much against a mere modernism. When I use the word “modernism,” I am not alluding specially to the current quarrel in the Roman Catholic Church, though I am certainly astonished at any intellectual group accepting so weak and unphilosophical a name. It is incomprehensible to me that any thinker can calmly call himself a modernist; he might as well call himself a Thursdayite. But apart altogether from that particular disturbance, I am conscious of a general irritation expressed against the people who boast of their advancement and modernity in the discussion of religion. But I never succeeded in saying the quite clear and obvious thing that is really the matter with modernism. The real objection to modernism is simply that it is a form of snobbishness. It is an attempt to crush a rational opponent not by reason, but by some mystery of superiority, by hinting that one is specially up to date or particularly “in the know.” To flaunt the fact that we have had all the last books from Germany is simply vulgar; like flaunting the fact that we have had all the last bonnets from Paris. To introduce into philosophical discussions a sneer at a creed’s antiquity is like introducing a sneer at a lady’s age. It is caddish because it is irrelevant. The pure modernist is merely a snob; he cannot bear to be a month behind the fashion Similarly I find that I have tried in these pages to express the real objection to philanthropists and have not succeeded. I have not seen the quite simple objection to the causes advocated by certain wealthy idealists; causes of which the cause called teetotalism is the strongest case. I have used many abusive terms about the thing, calling it Puritanism, or superciliousness, or aristocracy; but I have not seen and stated the quite simple objection to philanthropy; which is that it is religious persecution. Religious persecution does not consist in thumbscrews or fires of Smithfield; the essence of religious persecution is this: that the man who happens to have material power in the State, either by wealth or by official position, should govern his fellow-citizens not according to their religion or philosophy, but according to his own. If, for instance, there is such a thing as a vegetarian nation; if there is a great united mass of men who wish to live by the vegetarian morality, then I say in the emphatic words of the arrogant French marquis before the French Revolution, “Let them eat grass.” Perhaps that French oligarch was a humanitarian; most oligarchs are. Perhaps when he told the peasants to eat grass he was recommending to them the hygienic simplicity of a vegetarian restaurant. But that is an irrelevant, though most fascinating, speculation. The point here is that if a nation is really vegetarian let its government force upon it the whole horrible weight of vegetarianism. Let its government give the national guests a State vegetarian banquet. Let its government, in the most literal and awful sense of the words, give them beans. That sort of tyranny is all very well; for it is the people tyrannising over all the persons. But “temperance reformers” are like a small group of vegetarians who should silently and systematically act on an ethical assumption entirely unfamiliar to the mass of the people. They would always be giving peerages to greengrocers. They would always be appointing Parliamentary Commissions to enquire into the private life of butchers. Whenever they found a man quite at their mercy, as a pauper or a convict or a lunatic, they would force him to add the final touch to his inhuman isolation by becoming a vegetarian. All the meals for school children will be vegetarian meals. All the State public houses will be vegetarian public houses. There is a very strong case for vegetarianism as compared with teetotalism. Drinking one glass of beer cannot by any philosophy be drunkenness; but killing one animal can, by this philosophy, be murder. The objection to both processes is not that the two creeds, teetotal and vegetarian, are not admissible; it is simply that they are not admitted. The thing is religious persecution because it is not based on the existing religion of the democracy. These people ask the poor to accept in practice what they know perfectly well that the poor would not accept in theory. That is the very definition of religious persecution. I was against the Tory attempt to force upon ordinary Englishmen a Catholic theology in which they do not believe. I am even more against the attempt to force upon them a Mohamedan morality which they actively deny.

Again, in the case of anonymous journalism I seem to have said a great deal without getting out the point very clearly. Anonymous journalism is dangerous, and is poisonous in our existing life simply because it is so rapidly becoming an anonymous life. That is the horrible thing about our contemporary atmosphere. Society is becoming a secret society. The modern tyrant is evil because of his elusiveness. He is more nameless than his slave. He is not more of a bully than the tyrants of the past; but he is more of a coward. The rich publisher may treat the poor poet better or worse than the old master workman treated the old apprentice. But the apprentice ran away and the master ran after him. Nowadays it is the poet who pursues and tries in vain to fix the fact of responsibility. It is the publisher who runs away. The clerk of Mr. Solomon gets the sack: the beautiful Greek slave of the Sultan Suliman also gets the sack; or the sack gets her. But though she is concealed under the black waves of the Bosphorus, at least her destroyer is not concealed. He goes behind golden trumpets riding on a white elephant. But in the case of the clerk it is almost as difficult to know where the dismissal comes from as to know where the clerk goes to. It may be Mr. Solomon or Mr. Solomon’s manager, or Mr. Solomon’s rich aunt in Cheltenham, or Mr. Soloman’s rich creditor in Berlin. The elaborate machinery which was once used to make men responsible is now used solely in order to shift the responsibility. People talk about the pride of tyrants; but we in this age are not suffering from the pride of tyrants. We are suffering from the shyness of tyrants; from the shrinking modesty of tyrants. Therefore, we must not encourage leader-writers to be shy; we must not inflame their already exaggerated modesty. Rather we must attempt to lure them to be vain and ostentatious; so that through ostentation they may at last find their way to honesty.

The last indictment against this book is the worst of all. It is simply this: that if all goes well this book will be unintelligible gibberish. For it is mostly concerned with attacking attitudes which are in their nature accidental and incapable of enduring. Brief as is the career of such a book as this, it may last just twenty minutes longer than most of the philosophies that it attacks. In the end it will not matter to us whether we wrote well or ill; whether we fought with flails or reeds. It will matter to us greatly on what side we fought.


From Gutenberg: All Things Considered