Changes to Old English vocabulary

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Many words that existed in Old English did not survive into Modern English. There are also many words in Modern English that bear little or no resemblance in meaning to their Old English etymons. Some linguists estimate that as much as 80 percent of the lexicon of Old English was lost by the end of the Middle English period, including a large number of words formed by compounding, e.g. bōchūs ('bookhouse', 'library'), yet we still retain the component parts 'book' and 'house'.[citation needed] Certain categories of words seem to have been especially vulnerable. Nearly all words relating to sexual intercourse and sexual organs were supplanted by words of Latin or Ancient Greek origin. Many, if not most, of the words in Modern English that are used in polite conversation to describe body parts and bodily functions are of Latin or Greek origin. The words which were used in Old English for these same purposes are now mostly either extinct or considered crude or vulgar, such as arse/ass.

Some words became extinct while other near-synonyms of Old English origin replaced them ('limb' survives, yet lið is gone or survives dialectally as lith). Many of these linguistic changes were brought on by the introduction of Old Norse and Norman French words, while others fell away due to the natural processes of language evolution.


Modern English has no Germanic words left that mean 'animal' in its most generic sense of 'non-human creature'. Old English dēor, gesceaft, gesceap, nēat and iht were all eclipsed by 'animal', 'beast', 'creature' and 'critter', all of which are of Latin origin.

  • acweorna: squirrel. Displaced by Anglo-Norman esquirel and Old French escurel (whence French écureuil), from Vulgar Latin scuriolus, diminutive of scurius, variant of Latin sciurus, from Ancient Greek σκίουρος (skíouros). Compare German Eichhorn, Dutch eekhoorn, Icelandic ikorni, Swedish ekorre, Danish egern, Norwegian ekorn.
  • āðexe: 'lizard'. Lizard appeared in Middle English and is from Old French lesarde, from Latin lacertus.[1] The earliest occurrence of the word (spelled lusarde) is in the poem Piers Plowman (written about 1360–1399). Old English āðexe does survive as rare/dialectal ask ('newt', 'eft', 'lizard'): cf. German Eidechse, Dutch hagedis.
  • ælepūte: 'burbot'. The Old French word borbote had replaced ælepūte by the Middle English period.[2] 'Burbot' first occurred in English around 1475. The word's modern descendant, 'eelpout', is occasionally used for the burbot, although that term has come to define a different animal.
  • cawelwyrm: 'caterpillar' (see lēafwyrm).
  • culfre: 'dove', 'pigeon' has survived as the rare/dialectal 'culver', a word the AHD believes comes from Vulgar Latin colombula.[1] The OED acknowledges this possibility, but asserts that it is more likely native. 'Culver' is first attested in English in around 825 and 'dove' in around 1200. The Middle English dove is thought to come from Old English, but the assumed form (*dūfe) is unattested, cf. dūfedoppa below. It is most likely to have been common Germanic.[3]
  • dēor: 'animal', 'beast'. Dēor is the etymon of English 'deer', although dēor as 'deer' is attested as early as around 893 by Alfred the Great. At some point in the Middle English period the more specific meaning of 'deer' became common, with the original meaning becoming lost by the end of the period. Compare German Tier, Dutch dier, Swedish djur, Danish and Norwegian dyr, Icelandic dýr.
  • dūfedoppa: 'pelican'. The term pelican appeared in Middle English and is ultimately from Ancient Greek.[1]
  • ened: 'duck', 'drake'. 'Drake' first appeared in around 1300 and ened then disappeared. The AHD says the origin is unknown.[1] Old High German antrahho seems to be a combination of ant (cognate of Old English ened) and trahho (cognate of drake), but the OED holds that the conjectured cognate in Old English (unattested *andrake) "has no basis of fact". The word ened likely has a PIE origin, compare Latin anas, Lithuanian antis and Old Greek nēssa ('duck'). 'Duck' is from an anattested Old English word *duce, presumably from the verb ducan ('duck', 'dive'). Compare with the German Ente, Dutch eend, Common Scandinavian and.
  • fifalde: 'butterfly'. Old English had the word butorflēoge as early as 1000 and this term (of dubious origin, although the ultimately Greek word "butter" is certainly the first element)[1] eventually pushed out the entirely Germanic fifalde. Compare with Old High German fîfaltarâ, German Falter, Old Saxon vivoldara, Southern Dutch vijfwouter, Old Norse fifrildi, Icelandic fiðrildi, Swedish fjäril, as well as Latin papilio.
  • firgenbucca: 'ibex'. 'Ibex' is from Latin ibex[1] which first appeared as ibecks in Edward Topsell's "The historie of foure-footed beastes" (1607). The word comes from firgen ('wooded height', 'mountain'), compare with Gothic fairguni ('mountain'), Old High German Fergunna ('Ore Mountains') and bucca, 'buck'). Compare with modern German Steinbock, Dutch (alpen) steenbok ('ibex'), rare English word stonebuck.
  • gesceaft, gesceap: 'creature'. Gesceap, the etymon of English 'shape', is documented as far back as around 1050. It had many meanings in Old English: 'creature', 'creation', 'structure', 'form', 'figure', 'configuration', 'pudendum', 'decree' and 'destiny'. 'Creature', ultimately from Latin, first entered English in around 1300 and actually pre-dates the modern word 'create'.[1] Gesceaft ('creation', 'origin', 'constitution', 'nature', 'species') has the same etymological root as gesceap. It is documented as early as 888 and occurs with this meaning in various forms as late as around 1579, as schaft. Compare to Dutch past participle geschapen for the verb scheppen ('to create') German schaffen ('to create'), Geschöpf ('creature').
  • hacod: 'mullet'. The OED lists hacod/haked as a dialectal name for a large pike and has a citation as late as 1847, but this word is not listed in any modern dictionary. 'Mullet' appeared in Middle English and it ultimately comes from Ancient Greek.[1] The term is probably related to haca ('hook'). Compare with modern English hake, Dutch heek ('hake'), German Hechte ('esox').
  • hæferblæte: 'bittern'. 'Bittern' entered Middle English as botor and comes from the Old French butor. It is attested in English in around 1000.
  • higera: 'jay'. The word jai appeared in Middle English in around 1310 and is from Old French. The AHD states that it is possibly from the Latin praenomen Gaius, but gives no possible reason for the semantic change.[1] The OED does not address the Gaius theory, only stating that it cannot be identified with Old French gai ('gay').[1] It instead acknowledges, but does not comment on the possibility, that it is from Old High German gâhi ('swift', 'quick', 'lively'). Compare with German Häher.
  • hwilpe: 'curlew'. The Middle English form curleu comes from Old French courlieu, which is possibly of onomatopoeic origin.[1] The OED also believes that it is probably onomatopoeic, but notes that its became assimilated to that of courlieu, curleu ('courier'), which is ultimately from Latin currere ('to run').
  • iht: 'creature'. (See gesceap.)
  • lēafwyrm: 'caterpillar', literally 'leaf-worm', 'leaf insect'. Webster's Dictionary (1897) lists 'leaf-worm' as "a caterpillar that devours leaves", but no modern dictionaries list this word. The cawel in cawelwyrm was a loan from Latin caulis ('cabbage') and the last recorded use of it was around 1000, as cawelwurm. Mælsceafa ('caterpillar') is attested as far back as Old English (around 1000 in the writings of Ælfric) and as late as 1398, as malshaue. Mæl (meaning roughly 'meal' as in 'mealworm') is attested only in the compound mælsceafa, but it has many well-documented cognates in other Germanic languages, such as Old Icelandic and Swedish. The second component shares its root with 'shave'. The ultimately Latin-derived caterpillar first appeared in English around 1440 as catyrpel.[1]
  • mælsceafa: 'caterpillar'. (See lēafwyrm). Compare with Dutch meelworm (meel = flour, which it likes to eat and can be found in).
  • mereswīn: 'dolphin', 'porpoise', literally 'sea-swine'. It is attested in Bald's Leechbook from the 10th century. The OED does not list 'mereswine' as archaic or obsolete, but the last citation given is by Frank Charles Bowen in his Sea Slang: a Dictionary of the Old-timers' Expressions and Epithets (1929). The OED lists sea-swine ('porpoise') (the last citation being for 1884) as "obsolete except dialectic". Dolphin entered English in the 12th century: it is ultimately from Ancient Greek.[1] Compare with Dutch meerzwijn ('harbour porpoise', lit. sea-swine) and German Schweinswal ('porpoise', literally 'pig's whale').
  • mūshāfoc: 'buzzard', literally 'mouse hawk'. It is not clear which bird of prey this word referred to. The OED lists multiple meanings for 'mouse hawk', (short-eared owl, hen harrier and rough-legged buzzard), but 'mouse hawk' is an alternate name, not the prevailing name. The Middle English word busard first entered the language in around 1300 and it comes ultimately from Latin būtēo.[1]
  • ryðða: 'mastiff'. The word mastiff appeared in around 1387 and it is ultimately of Latin origin.[1]
  • scræb: 'cormorant'. Cormorant first entered English in around 1320 as cormerant, ultimately from the Latin words for raven and sea.[1] Probably related to (or a variant of) scræf ('cormorant'). Compare with German Scharbe, Common Scandinavian skarv.
  • sisemūs: 'dormouse'. Dormouse (first attested in English in around 1425) is not a combination of door and mouse. Some lexicographers, including the editorial staff of the AHD, believe that it came from Anglo-Norman dormeus ('inclined to sleep', 'hiberating'), which is ultimately from Latin dormire ('to sleep').[1] The OED, citing the Dutch words slaep-ratte ('sleep rat') and slaep-muys ('sleep mouse'), acknowledges the possibility of this derivation, but also suggests that the first element is related to Old Norse dár ('benumbed').
  • wōrhana, wildhænn: 'pheasant'. Pheasant appeared in English in 1299 (as fesaund) and is ultimately from Ancient Greek.[1]
  • wyrm: 'serpent', 'snake', 'dragon', 'insect'. The OED lists all entries of wyrm/worm with this meaning as archaic. The latest citation that it gives with this meaning is from William Morris's book The Life and Death of Jason (1867). The modern sense of worm as goes back as far as 1000. Compare with Swedish orm, Nynorsk orm ('snake', 'serpent').

Body parts[edit]

  • earsgang: 'anus' (literally arse-exit). Anus did not enter English until 1658 and was adopted directly from Latin, with no intermediary. The OED says that arse (the ears of earsgang is its etymon) is "obsolete in polite use". The AHD tags ass as "vulgar slang".[1] As late as 1704, Jonathan Swift wrote "after your Arse" in his book The Battle of the Books, which simply meant 'behind you'. (See setl, ūtgang.).
  • feorhbold, feorhhold, feorhhus: 'body'. (See also: līc, līcfæt, līchoma.)
  • hrēsel: 'radius (bone). The word radius is of Latin origin and its specific anatomical meaning was first used in English in 1615.
  • līc: 'body','trunk'. Līc (which was at various times spelled like, lich, lych, lyche and lyke) is attested as far back as around 900 and the last citation given with this more general meaning is from around 1400. However, the last citation with the meaning of 'corpse' is from 1895. The word now survives only in obscure compounds such as lych-gate,[1] lych-owl (so called because its screeching was thought by some to portend death) and lyke-wake (the watch kept over a dead body at night). The word is etymologically related to like, so its original meaning is thought to be 'form', 'shape'.[1] (See also: feorhbold, feorhhold, feorhhus, līcfæt, līchoma.) Compare with the following words in other languages for 'corpse': German Leiche, Dutch lijk, Swedish lik, Norwegian lik and Danish lig.
  • līcfæt, līchoma: 'body'. (See also: feorhbold, feorhhold, feorhhus, līc.) Compare with German Leichnam ('corpse'), Dutch lichaam, Swedish lekamen, Nynorsk lekam and Danish legeme.
  • lið: 'joint', 'limb'. Lið (later spelled lith) is attested as early as around 900 and the latest citation in the OED is 1872. The OED considers all modern occurrences to be archaic or dialectic. However, the phrase "life and limb" may be an altered form of an earlier "lith and limb"; cf. "kith and kin". The word limb, also of Germanic origin, has come to replace lið. Compare with German Glied, Dutch lid, Swedish led, Danish led and Norwegian ledd.
  • midhriðre: 'diaphragm'.
  • nebb: 'face'. The OED gives the modern definitions of the Scottish, Irish English, Northern English for neb, such as 'bird's beak' and 'an animal's nose', but the last citation given with the meaning 'a person's face' is from 1525. (See also: ondwlita, onsīen.) Compare English ness ('promontory'), Dutch neb ('beak').
  • ōcusta, ōxn: 'armpit'. Armpit first appeared in English as arme-pytt in around 1400. It is probably related to such English words as axis and axle and the Latin axilla, from PIE *aks-, or similar. It has survived as the English dialectal oxter ('armpit', 'arm'). Compare with German Achsel, Dutch oksel, Swedish axel (shoulder), Norwegian aksel (shoulder).
  • ondwlita: 'face'. (See also: nebb, onsīen.) Compare with German Antlitz, Swedish anlete.
  • onsīen: 'face' (See also: nebb, ondwlita.) Compare with German (An)gesicht, Dutch aangezicht.
  • ōxn: 'armpit'. (See also: ōcusta.)
  • setl: 'anus'. (See also: earsgang, ūtgang.)
  • teors: 'penis'. (See also: wæpen.) Penis, which did not enter English until 1578, was borrowed directly from Latin.
  • ūtgang: 'anus'. Literally 'exit', 'out-path', (See also: earsgang, setl.) Compare German Ausgang, Dutch uitgang ('exit').
  • wæpen: 'penis'. (See also: teors.)
  • wiðobān: 'collarbone'.


  • æppelfealu: 'orange'. Literally 'apple-pale'. (See also: geolurēad.)
  • basurēadan: 'purple'. Literally 'purple-red'. (See also: weolucbasu.)
  • geolurēad: 'orange'. Literally 'yellow-red'. (See also: æppelfealu.)
  • weolucbasu: 'purple'. Literally 'whelk-purple'. (See also: basurēadan.)

Other words[edit]

  • andwurde, andwyrde: 'to answer'. A combination of the prefix and- ('against', related to Greek anti-) and wurde ('word'). By the end of the 12th century, andwurde had been replaced by andswerian ('answer'), (containing swear, probably Common Germanic, attested at least before 900). Compare with German Antwort, Dutch antwoord.
  • æðele: 'noble'; also æðelu: 'noble descent'; æðeling: 'hero' and ēðel: 'native land', 'home'. Once very common words with many extant compounds, these words exists in Modern English only in the Germanic loanwords edelweiss[1] and some proper nouns like Ethel (the same Germanic root gives the Ad- in Adelaide, Adolph and Albert). The Latin-derived terms noble and gentle (in its original English meaning of 'noble') both appeared in English around 1230. Compare with German edel, Dutch edel, rare English word athel.
  • ge-: a prefix used extensively in Old English, originally meaning 'with', but later gaining several other usages, such as being used grammatically for the perfect. In Middle English it became y or i, and was still frequent in southern dialects in the 14th Century (e.g. Canterbury Tales and Ayenbite of Inwit). In Modern English it survives in handiwork (OE handgeweorc), and in the archaic gemot ('meeting', compare with Witenagemot) and yclept (OE geclypod). It is also found in the rare German loanwords gemütlich and gemütlichkeit. Compare with German ge-, Dutch ge-.
  • gerīm: 'number'. (See worn.)
  • getæl: 'number'. A combination of the prefix ge- and tæl. Besides the phrase "to tell time",[4] it mainly survived in English with meanings related to speech ('tell', 'tale'). Meanings related to numbers can be found in several Germanic cognates. Compare with English teller, German Zahl, Dutch getal, Swedish and Danish tal and Norwegian tall. (See worn.)
  • hæmed, possibly became hammered, liger: 'sex'.
  • mid: 'with'. Mid was used in Old English in nearly all instances where 'with' is used in Modern English. It is attested in early Old English manuscripts. The latest use cited in the OED is 1547, but this late example is possibly an intentional archaism. By the end of the 14th century, mid had been superseded by with. If the beginning part of midwife is a reflex of this ancient preposition (and neither OED or AHD affirm this derivation),[1] it is the only trace of the with meaning left in Modern English. The word probably originally derived from an Indo-European root meaning 'middle' and is related to the English prefix mid- and Latin medium. It is likely to be related to Greek μετα ('meta', 'in the midst of', 'among', 'with', 'after'). Compare with German mit, Dutch met, Common Scandinavian med and Icelandic með.
  • worn: 'number'. Number is derived from Latin numerus and it first appeared in English as noumbre in around 1300. The word appears to have come from a French term, but its use was no doubt reinforced by its presence in other Germanic languages.
  • ymb(e): 'around', 'on both sides'. Ymbe was both a preposition and a prefix. The only Modern English word that derives directly from it is the little-used Ember days, a Christian event.[1] The Germanic loanwords ombudsman and umlaut come from the same Germanic root.[1] It is also related more distantly to Latin words starting with ambi- and Greek words starting with amphi-.[1] Compare with German um, Dutch om, Common Scandinavian om and Icelandic um.
  • wīġ: 'war', 'combat', 'martial power'. There were many words of this base in Old English: wīgan, ġewegan ('to fight'), wīġend ('warrior'). This group was used extensively in Old English poetry, due in part to the frequent alliterative need for a word starting with 'w'. It is from the same base as Latin vincere ('to conquer'). Other than the archaic, Old Norse-derived wight, this group of words is lost to Modern English.[1] Compare with Swedish envig ('holmgang') and Dutch wijgand ('warrior').

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.
  2. ^ AHD Online, 'Burbot' Archived December 1, 2005, at the Wayback Machine, accessed October 2007.
  3. ^ AHD Online, 'Dove' Archived April 15, 2005, at the Wayback Machine, accessed October 2007.
  4. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary, 'tell (v.)'.


  • The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Fourth ed.). 2000. ISBN 0-395-82517-2.

Further reading[edit]