“Early awake.”

That’s the definition of ærwacol. It comes from ær ‘early’ and wacol ‘watchful, vigilant’. It’s not a Modern English word; it’s Old English, which is to say Anglo-Saxon, and you can find it in an Anglo-Saxon dictionary. You can even find it in Old English texts (or else how would the lexicographers know of it?) – for example, “Đa cwæð se cyngc, ‘Leofe dohtor, for hwi eart ðu þus ærwacol?’” (“Then the king said, ‘Dear daughter, why are you awake so early?’”). But if you Google it, you will first find several pages of references to one thing: a play by Sean Dixon.

And that is how I encountered the word. I saw the play Aerwacol in 2000, staged on a railway handcar on disused tracks at Cherry Street and Mill Street (now when I go by there I cross streetcar tracks, pass a construction site, and transect a burgeoning neighbourhood). I watched it, I am happy to say, at 7 p.m., not at some horrid early hour. There is early rising in the play, if memory serves, but in particular Aerwacol is the name of a bird sanctuary that the characters find themselves in. (From personal experience of staying in rural areas where birds flock, I can tell you there is probably no surer place on earth to be ærwacol unless absolutely nothing wakes you up.)

I was reminded of ærwacol (the thing, not the play, though of course the play follows in memory) more recently when somewhere or other on the web I was offered an article on how to become an early riser.

Now, why the hell would I want to do that.

No, no, you don’t have to tell me, I know: “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” as Ben Franklin said (“Or a milkman,” as someone else said, and then some kid said “A what?”). It is typically presented with the air of a personal habit of the utmost moral superiority. Productivity “gurus” are often quite fond of encouraging early rising. Get a head start on the day! Get those extra hours in! Be productive in the calm peace of the morning! Meet the day with things already done! Don’t be some indolent late-sleeper! Oh, and then make sure to get to bed early so you can meet the next day well rested!

Or I could sleep exactly the same number of hours, arise well rested when the sun is already about its business, set to tidying up all the messes that other people have made already (the early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese), fill my mind with the thoughts and observations of the day, and then, after most people are already sloped off into slumber, take advantage of the calm peace of the later evening to synthesize and produce and have it all ready before even the earliest early riser gets up. I also get to stay to the best part of parties and catch late-night TV if I want (don’t even try to tell me early-morning TV is better). And, as an added bonus, I don’t get to come off like I’m a superior person for doing it that way.

Look, I know my brain. I schedule my work day around its phases. It’s optimal for creativity in the evening, analytical work in the afternoon, and basic reactive application in the morning. There are many people who love writing first thing in the morning, and that’s great for them; when I do that, I generally don’t like the results. People are different, eh?

But think of all the famous early risers! Michelle Obama! Tim Cook! Richard Branson! Benjamin Franklin! Rachel Ray! Napoleon Bonaparte! Ernest Hemingway!

OK, but think of all the famous night owls. Barack Obama. Winston Churchill. Charles Darwin. Carl Jung. Keith Richards. Elvis Presley. Fran Lebowitz. James Joyce. Marcel Proust. J.R.R. Tolkien.

It’s true that there seem to be more CEOs and motivational speakers among the early risers, and I can see where being up in time to set the day’s agenda can be useful for people in some lines of work. But on the other hand, overall I much more enjoy the insights and output of the night owls. So you might as well be who you are, eh?

Still, I appreciate occasionally being ærwacol, when it’s of my own choosing. To run a race, for instance (on my 51st birthday I got up early-ish, ran a half marathon, and then headed straight from the finish line to the spa for a massage and a champagne brunch, and let me tell you, I’d be happy to do that again). Or to go skiing (only because otherwise you only get half a day on the slopes). Or to travel somewhere (so there’s still day left when we arrive). I even occasionally think about getting up and out just to take pictures in the golden hour after dawn when the light is on all those places that it’s not on during the other golden hour, before sunset.

think about it. I haven’t done it yet. I’m sure it’s nice, or something.

And I’m not so fond of involuntary being ærwacol, due to stress, or fire alarms, or eating the wrong food for dinner, or noisy birds. I do not feel happy or ready in those circumstances. Night owls are often associated with depressive tendencies, but let me introduce you to another Anglo-Saxon word: uhtcearu. From a famous poem called “The Wife’s Lament”: “hæfde ic uhtceare hwær min leodfruma londes wære” (“I had grief before dawn about where in the land my leader of men might be”). You can’t have uhtcearu without being ærwacol. And, at least for me, grief, like other stresses, is more tolerable later in the day.

2 responses to “ærwacol

  1. What a great post! Clearly I will have to write about it (blog.larrydavidson.com), even though I’m a morning person myself. If I weren’t retired I would share this with my students, but now my blog will have to do.

  2. Playwright here. Thanks for this. I was just cursing my use of an Anglo Saxon word for my old play’s title and decided to look it up. Found this.
    If you want to see the text again, it’s here:

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