What if someone were to spread slander about your good name – perhaps some chain mail questioning your mettle? How would you burke it? What defence would you don if someone called you shifty?

Today’s word, hauberk, is similar to my last name – Harbeck – especially when both are said by someone with an r-dropping accent. There’s even an easy orthographical transformation from one to the other: turn the u 90 degrees and swap it with the r. But aside from that little shift, I have no connection with a hauberk, which is a tunic – or shift – made of chain mail. (Not that I’m likely to get shirty about being linked to it.)

A hauberk is not the sort of thing you’re too likely to see in real life today. I’m sure I did see some when I was a kid – but not on the neighbours; in the Glenbow Museum. You may, of course, read about it, if you like your tales set in the middle ages (no, I don’t mean novels about people over 40 – some Teutonic romances, perhaps). Or if you read fantasy novels, for instance Tolkien.

A chain mail tunic made of mithril silver does save Frodo Baggins’s life at one point in that epic. But just now I am reminded of one of Tolkien’s pet interpolations, a long song, which I quoted yesterday in my post on chalcedony. He doesn’t mention a hauberk by name in that; rather, he names a haubergeon. What’s that? It may sound like a burgeoning hauberk, but actually it’s a smaller one – or just another word for one.

At any rate, a hauberk is something you’ll want if someone is after your neck. Neck? Well, that was actually the start of it: the word is from hals “neck” and bergan “cover”. It comes from Germanic roots but has been passed through Romance languages. Fair enough; all sorts people used to need them for fighting their multifarious feuds – with nothing to hold back a halbard, your family name might be cut short. Not that the fighters mostly had them: you can imagine that a chain-mail shirt would be expensive now (I mean a real one, not the kind you get as a giveaway in some game like The Lord of the Rings Online), and you may feel sure it would have been even farther out of reach for the ordinary person in feudal times.

A hauberk for a hobbit, of course, would be a shorter order. But a hauberk for a Harbeck? It may have a familiar ring, but it doesn’t quite suit me.

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