gangelwæfre and other kennings

Old English shared with its Germanic compeers a system of word formation that built up compounds out of preexisting elements. Nouns could be joined with other nouns, adjectives, or prefixes to form new words. Verbs could be compounded with prefixes or nouns to denote shades of meaning. Thus a word like timber could receive the prefix be- to become betimber (“to build”). Or an ordinary creature such as a spider could be called by the compound gangelwæfre, “the walking weaver.” Old English poetry is rife with such noun compounds, known as “kennings”. Poets called the sea the hron-rad (the road of the whale), or the swan-rad (the road of the swan). The body was the ban-loca (the bone locker). When Anglo-Saxon writers needed to translate a word from classical or church Latin, say, they would build up new compounds based on the elements of that Latin word. Thus a word such as grammatica, the discipline of literacy or the study of grammar itself, would be expressed as stæf-cræft: the craft of the staff, that is of the bookstaff or the individual marks that make up letters (the Old English word for letter, boc-stæf, is very similar to modern German Buchstabe). A word like the Latin superbia, meaning pride, came out in Old English as ofer-mod: overmood, or more precisely, too much of an inner sense of self. A word like baptisterium (from a Greek word meaning to plunge into a cold bath) was expressed in Old English by the noun ful-wiht: the first element, ful, means full or brimming over; the second element, wiht, means at all or completely (and is the ancestor of our word “whit” — not a whit, not at all).

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