Those of my visitors who know something about Old English poetry may have realised that the link between the F-word and churning butter (see the previous post) is not just etymological – it’s a literary allusion. Among the famous Anglo-Saxon riddles preserved in the Exeter Book we find the following one (Riddle 54):
Hyse cwom gangan, þær he hie wisse
stondan in wincsele, stop feorran to,
hror hægstealdmon, hof his agen
hrægl hondum up, <hrand> under gyrdels
hyre stondendre stiþes nathwæt,
worhte his willan; wagedan buta.
Þegn onnette, wæs þragum nyt
tillic esne, teorode hwæþre
æt stunda gehwam strong ær þon <hio>,
werig þæs weorces. Hyre weaxan ongon
under gyrdelse þæt oft gode men
ferðþum freogað ond mid feo bicgað.
|An Anglo-Saxon churn lid, with the Freudian hole|
The Exeter Book (written more than one thousand years ago) is the largest extant anthology of Old English poetry. It contains diverse stuff, from solemn religious and allegorical poems, saints’ lives, elegies and fragments of heroic legends to comic, somewhat naughty, light compositions, such as Riddle 54. There are as many as 96 Old English riddles in the manusctipt (the genre is hardly documented in any other source). Many of them have very serious religious solutions, but certainly not this one. Good translations of the riddles are hard to get by. Much is lost in translation, and humour is usually the first victim. A specialist can always enjoy the original, but for the sake of those whose Old English is not very fluent I’m going to offer my own translation, for what it’s worth. At least it isn’t a horrible mistranslation (some others are) and it tries to capture the spirit of the original. I also hope it isn’t too stilted (for a piece of Old English verse).
Some things are practically untranslatable. For example, Old English had grammatical gender, and the use of feminine personal pronouns (corresponding to Modern English she and her) doesn’t mean that the pronoun indicates a female human being. It can refer to any object whose Old English name is a feminine noun (e.g. tunge ‘tongue’, bōc ‘book’, duru ‘door’, etc.). It may suggest a woman, but since the alternative possibility is also probable, the suggestion is much weaker than in Modern English. This subtle ambiguity would be lost completely if she were replaced by it, so I let it stay. Just remember that in Modern English not only ships but also some tools and utensils can be conventionally personified by their users and referred to as “she”. It isn’t quite the same thing as Old English grammatical gender, but must suffice to justify my artistic licence.
Another problem is that Old English is a dead language and its written record if far from perfect. The words in angle brackets represent editorial emendations in places where the text seems to be corrupt. The first of the restored forms, <hrand> actually reads rand in the manuscript, but this can’t be the word intended by the poet. The rules of Old English poetic alliteration demand something beginning with h in the first stressed position of the second half of the line. The most likely emendation is hrand. Unfortunately, such a word-form does not occur anywhere else in the entire Old English text corpus. The context requires a verb in the past tense here. A past tense like hrand presupposes the infinitive *hrindan, past tense plural *hrundon, past participle *hrunden, etc. But what might they mean? Not only is the verb otherwise unknown from Old English; it has left no Middle of Modern English descendants either. To use a technical Greek term, it’s a hapax legomenon, a word appearing only once.
There’s nothing wrong with being a hapax. It’s the inevitable consequence of the fact that words have wildly different frequencies of use (a common motif in my blog posts). In fact, in any large corpus of texts at least about 40% of the words (types, not tokens) occur only once. The same is true of Old English: more than half of the entries in any more-or-less complete Old English dictionary occur only once or twice in the surviving texts. So hrand is not anything unusual, just a little enigmatic.
What about possible cognates in other Germanic languages? We have Old Icelandic hrinda (past tense hratt < *hrant < *hrand) whose precise meaning is known: ‘push, hurl down’ and, figuratively, ‘launch’ or ‘expel, get rid of’ (the verb has survived in Modern Icelandic and Faroese). The literal meaning roughly fits the context of Riddle 54. Most Modern English translations use thrust; I prefer shove because of its greater semantic overlap with Scandinavian hrinda, and also for the sake of alliteration. Last but not least, shove is less dignified than push or thrust, and has the kind of colloquial vigour they lack, which is an advantage in this case. All right, I’ve never tried it before, so here goes!*)
A lad came walking to where, as he knew,
she stood in a corner; stepped in from afar,
a brisk bachelor, tucked up his own
shirt with his hands, shoved under the girdle
of the one standing a stout thingumajig
and worked his will; both rocked back and forth.
The servant quickened up: at times he was of use,
a handy workman, he grew weaker though
with every stroke, strenghtless too soon,
weary from work. There began to form
under her girdle that which good men often
dearly desire and procure with money.
And the solution is ― yes, yes, you’ve guessed correctly! ― a butter churn, that is OE ċyrn. By the way, this word occurs three times in Old English texts: once as cyrin (sg.), once as cyrne (pl.), and once as cirm (misspelt by the scribe). As you can see even the citation forms that we use for convenience represent “Standard Old English” imposed by modern dictionary editors rather than the actual language of the manuscripts.
|An early 20th-century postcard|
Needless to point out, ĊYRN [wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more, say no more] is the “formal” solution of the riddle. The informal one is as obvious to us as it was to any Anglo-Saxon audience in the tenth century. Other ambiguous riddles in the Exeter Book exploit the same risqué ambiguity: the alternative interpretation is invariably bawdy. Their innuendo-laden humour may be crude, but it still appeals to the modern reader. For the survival of the whole collection we are indebted to Leofric, Bishop of Exeter, a well-educated bibliophile, who died in 1072, bequeathing his impressive manuscript collection to Exeter Cathedral. He apparently did not regard the riddles as subversive enough to be denied the shelter of the cathedral library. Riddle 54 helps us to understand why, back in 1290, a chap from Ipswich, presumably a local dairyman, was called Simon Fukkebotere. It offers us a glimpse into the secret world of naughty associations that existed in the minds of Anglo-Saxon scribes and their audience (and still exist in ours), so we are not making things up when we hypothesise that the original meaning of fuck was ‘strike repeatedly’. Who knows, perhaps the speakers of Old English could use the same word for churning and, with less innocent intent, for [know what I mean? nudge nudge] the other thing.