Tag Archives: Old English


ac hine se módega      maég Hygeláces
hæfde be honda·      wæs gehwæþer óðrum
lifigende láð·      lícsár gebád
atol aéglaéca·      him on eaxle wearð
syndolh sweotol·      seonowe onsprungon·
burston bánlocan·      Béowulfe wearð
gúðhréð gyfeþe·      scolde Grendel þonan
feorhséoc fléön      under fenhleoðu

but him the daring      kinsman of Hygelac
had by the hand;      each was by the other
loathed while living;      body-pain he felt,
the awful ogre;      on his shoulder was
a great wound apparent,      sinews sprang asunder,
bone-locks burst;      to Beowulf was
war-glory given;      thence Grendel had to
flee sick unto death      under the hills of the fen
(translation by Benjamin Slade)

We’ve all felt this way, haven’t we? I sure did this afternoon.

Maybe I should explain, since not everyone has read Beowulf. Grendel is a monster (or, depending on the movie you watch, a misunderstood oversized mama’s boy) who has made a bit of a habit of breaking into the mead-hall at Heorot (it’s an ancient Danish drinking hall, basically, and at the end of the evening they all pass out on the floor) and, er, eating a few people. So this hero named Beowulf is called for, and when Grendel breaks in and grabs him to eat him, Beowulf just holds him by the arm and won’t let go. Grendel wants to get away because he’s instantly terrorized by this grip:

Sóna þæt onfunde      fyrena hyrde·
þæt hé ne métte      middangeardes
eorþan scéatta      on elran men
mundgripe máran·      hé on móde wearð
forht on ferhðe·      nó þý aér fram meahte·
hyge wæs him hinfús·      wolde on heolster fléon

At once he found,      the shepherd of atrocities,
that he had not met      in middle-earth,
in the expanse of the world,      in another man
a greater hand-grip;      he in his heart grew
fearing for life;      none the sooner could he away;
eager-to-go-hence was the thought in him,     he wanted to flee into the darkness

But he can’t get away. Beowulf holds on, no matter how much Grendel fights and thrashes and breaks the furniture. And at last, Beowulf disarticulates him at the oxter, and inarticulate Grendel flees, disarmed. (The arm and hand are thereafter mounted as a trophy in the hall. But Beowulf has to deal with Grendel’s mother next.)

So anyway, I was heading home from the store today with two bottles of sparkling wine and six half-litre cans of beer in a reusable cotton bag, which I was attempting to shoulder. And I commented to Aina that I was going to have to set it down before I Grendelized myself.

It wasn’t a nonce formation. I’ve been using “Grendelize” for some time, because I’ve been carrying heavy bags on my shoulder for some time. When, for instance, we go to the Canadian National Exhibition, and I have a shoulder bag for carrying my camera and collecting my purchases, at some point over the dozen hours I am likely to start getting that baleful Beowulfful feeling. It goes without saying (which of course is why I’m saying it) that in December the annual Saturnalian orgy of consumerism results in much similar arm-twisting.

So I present Grendelize here for your use. (It’s not Beowulffize for a few reasons: Beowulf does other significant deeds in the story; Beowulffize has an obnoxious spelling for modern eyes; and Grendelize just sounds better.) Though I invented it, it’s not for my self-aggrandizement; it’s for your self-Grendelizement, which you are sure to experience soon enough. Unless you are my wife, of course, in which case you have for decades been shouldering a “purse” large enough to hold your whole life including a pair of figure skates (I am not exaggerating; I mean that literally literally), and your shoulder is now strong enough that it could probably bear a black hole and certainly would not give way to Beowulf. (No comment on whether you’d be hungry enough after shopping to eat a whole Dane. Or at least a whole Danish or two.)

The sounds of historical English

A couple of weeks ago, I did an “English language time machine” piece for The Week. This week, it’s up as a podcast, for those who prefer to listen:

What the English of Shakespeare, Beowulf, and King Arthur actually sounded like


What’s up with English spelling?

Presented at the 30th annual Editors’ Association of Canada conference, Toronto, June 6, 2009

Handout: Why is it spelled that way? A ghotiun expedition (PDF, 156 KB)

Last week, the annual Scripps Spelling Bee was held. Everyone was so impressed at how smart these kids were, at how they could spell all these words.

Remember that song, A-B-C, easy as 1-2-3…? So what the heck is so easy about ABC, at least in English? It gets to be like a bad marriage. Or a boxing match. Continue reading

An Appreciation of English: A language in motion

This is the text of a presentation I made at the Editors’ Association of Canada Conference in Vancouver, June 10, 2006. It came with a handout, “A brief history of English,” which is available as a PDF. It traces the history and development of the English language and the nature and function of language change.
Continue reading