Image of a medieval dragon perched on a pile of cutout words from Old English manuscripts.

On 13 November 2013 I tweeted wordhord, the first Old English Word of the Day, on @OEWordhord. I haven’t missed a day since. (Those of you who are mathematically inclined can calculate how many words that is!) After a while I decided to make an Old English Wordhord blog, and eventually I added the Wordhord to Facebook and Instagram. The Wordhord is also on Patreon. (See Wordhord Wednesday page for exclusive, patron-supported content and posts.)

Old English was the vernacular language of England from roughly 550 to 1150, what is known as the early medieval period. This English quite different from the English we know today. To modern English speakers, Old English’s words are both strange (like neorxnawang, paradise) and familiar (word, word). Some words belong so completely to another time and place that they can’t really be translated into modern English (gafol-fisc, for instance, which literally means “tax-fish”).

The Old English word wordhord (word-hoard) describes the collection of words and phrases that a poet may draw upon while crafting tales. Unlike a dictionary or other physical book, this stockpile of verses and vocabulary exists only in the poet’s mind. Faced with the daunting task of reciting hundreds of lines of poetry, a storyteller would have certainly benefited from a well-stocked “hoard” of words.

An excerpt of Old English writing from a medieval manuscript that contains the words "wordhord onleac".

The word wordhord appears seven times in Old English literature (only in poetry) and is most commonly found alongside the verb onleac (unlocked).

St Andrew unlocks his wordhord

“Ða him Andreas   ðurh ondsware, / wis on gewitte,   wordhord onleac…”

“Then Andreas by way of answering, wise in understanding, unlocked his word-hoard…”

Andreas, lines 315-316

…as does Christ disguised as a seafarer…

“Ða gen weges weard   wordhord onleac, / beorn ofer bolcan,   beald reordade…”

“Again the Guardian of the way unlocked his word-hoard, the man over the gangway, spoke boldly…”

Andreas, lines 601-602

…as does the well-travelled poet Widsith.

“Widsið maðolade,   wordhord onleac…”

“Widsith spoke, unlocked his word-hoard…”

Widsith, line 1

The warrior Beowulf unlocks his word-hoard when communicating with Hrothgar’s watchman…

“Him se yldesta   ondswarode / werodes wisa,   wordhord onleac…”

“The most senior answered him, the leader of the band, unlocked his word-hoard…”

Beowulf, lines 258-259

…as does Wisdom personified.

“Ða se wisdom eft   wordhord onleac, / sang soðcwidas,    and þus selfa cwæð…”

“Then Wisdom unlocked her word-hoard again, sang her own truths and spoke thus…”

Metres of Boethius, metre 6, lines 1-2

As with any hoard, the contents of a wordhord are valuable, if not to everyone at least to the person doing the hoarding. Its treasures may be shared with others whenever the hoard is “unlocked”.

Every day I unlock this Old English Wordhord to share a word with you. This is the Old English Word of the Day.

About the hoarder of words

Dr Hana Videen has been hoarding Old English words since 2013, when she began tweeting one a day. Now over 25,000 people follow for these daily gems from her Old English Wordhord. Following her Old English doctorate at King’s College London, she is now a writer and blogger in Toronto, translating curiosities of history into engaging narratives. Her book The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English was published by Profile (2021) and Princeton University Press (2022). She’s currently working on her second book.

See also:

Why I hoard words (a short piece I did for Princeton University Press’s Ideas blog)

In a woodcut-style illustration in red, white and gold, a woman in medieval clothing holds a basket containing wheat, a quill pen, a fish and a key - all of which are illustrations from the cover of Hana Videen’s book The Wordhord.

18 thoughts on “About

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  5. I just started “The Word Word” and am enjoying immensely. I wonder if Dr. Videen thinks it possible that the hapax ‘sin-snad’ in Beowulf could carry the idea of “everlasting bite” in the sense of sending the victim to eternity, denoting a “lethal bite” or “death bite”?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Mark! I’m glad you’re enjoying the book and I love your idea for sin-snæd. I think with a hapax like that it’s really left to the reader’s interpretation and we’ll probably never know exactly what the scribe had in mind. Thanks for sharing your take on it!


  6. Dear Dr. Videen- I too am enjoying your fascinating book- thank you! I wonder if you are familiar with Lancelot Hogben’s book ‘The Mother Tongue’; his explanations of cognates and etymologies are super.
    Have you written any poetry in Old English?
    Bruce Barrett


  7. Here’s a ragged attempt at OE poetry:

    Swá heofonfýre ic féoll
    Fylleseócan þurh þæmé astrodores dægsteorran ástricen
    Fram þæm heofenas into þisse helle
    Geheald héah þæt héahfýr ne ábogen
    Ne ábrocen ic curse þás clúsan
    fýste clyccende, hléor áhafenan
    þæh in þæm dwolman ic dwele
    Twá sceal lígetsliht forslieheþ
    forhwierfende þone heofon into helle

    Cheers- Bruce

    Liked by 1 person

      • Well, it’s been a few years since I wrote this, and I cannot remember if I merely borrowed the word from Greek or not. Below is the original poem in modern English (the Old English was my botched attempt at translation- long story). I was trying to capture the sense of ubiquitous alliteration in Old English.

        Like lightning I fell
        Falling through the star-stricken sky
        From Heaven’s halls into this hell
        Holding high the flame unbowed
        Unbroken I curse my cell
        Clench my fist, face upraised
        Though in this darkness I dwell
        Lightning twice shall strike
        Transforming Heaven into Hell

        This brings to mind the word draca, which is obviously taken from Greek. (I just read chapter 9 of your super book). Do you have a list of Greek words that made it into Old English? I would be surprised if there were many. Cheers

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve just finished reading The Word Hord, and will now set about informing my friends in the Society for Creative Anachronism of this marvelous tome.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Chapter 10 is great; you might enjoy David and Hilary Crystal’s exploration of the etymology and history of British place names, Wordsmiths and Warriors.
    Looking forward to your next book!

    Liked by 1 person

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