At the Wording Desk

Saint Geoge is the patron saint of England. Some analysts think the dragon is a symbol of non-Christians but to me Georgie Boy and his noble steed are slaying the dragon of linguistic ignorance.

Sore & Eke

Two Old English words still in Modern Use

Increase your understanding of English words by learning their Old English roots

Bill Casselman

And They Were Sore Unschooled
We begin with a common misunderstanding while reading the Christmas story in The Gospel of Saint Luke, in the English translation of 1611, the one best steeped in flowing English, namely The King James Version. No modern translation approaches the grace, annunciatory charm and verbal music of the KJV’s Elizabethan cadences and kindly rhythms.

Luke 2: 8-11
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

One “biblical scholar” (who no doubt thought that “Hebrew” was the brand name of a New York City hot dog) explained to my infant self that the shepherds were so afraid that it hurt. They were sore! Nonsense! Sore is the old English word meaning ‘very’ and it was the common word for ‘very’ before the Norman Invasion of 1066 brought many French words into English, some of which, like Anglo-Norman verrai, verrey, verai, veray, Old French verai, varai, vrai (modern French vrai, Provençal verai), meant adverbially ‘truly, really, very’ all from the Latin etymon vērus ‘true.’ The French word verrai utterly displaced sore and so sore disappeared from modern Standard English.

In Biblical English, there are several meanings of sore but a familiar one is the adverb’s use as an intensive. Thus sore came to mean ‘greatly, strongly, severely, to a very great extent.’ Sore’s Germanic relatives include the modern German sehr ‘very.’

In Martin Luther’s bible of 1522, in sixteenth century German, the passage “and they were sore afraid” was “vnnd sie furchten sich seer.” In a modern German bible (Shlachter 1951) the passage is “und sie fürchteten sich sehr."

Eke! Not Eek!
Yet another Germanic husk clinging to life in modern English is eke. Its modern German equivalent is auch ‘also.’ This meaning of eke can still be seen in older passages of English poetry. Among the last users was Longfellow: “Answered the young men Yes! and Yes! with lips softly breathing answered the maidens eke,” that from "Children Lord's Supper" of 1856. In the 1760 prose of Laurence Sterne’s Life of Tristram Shandy we read “Supposing the wax good, and eke the thimble.”

Eke is from Old English ēac akin to Latin aut or Greek au again, both from a Proto-Indo-European root.

 There is also a verb in English that permits us to eke out a bare living, a mere subsistence, this eke from another augmented form of the same PIE root seem in Old English éaca and Old Norse auke. To eke means ‘to grow, to add on, to prolong by making do.’ This is the source of what one of my old English teachers called “the sticky ‘n’ words.” For example an additional name was first called an eke-name. Then people misheard “an eke-name” as ‘a nickname’ and a new word was born.

Bill Casselman, November 07, 2016

Copyright 2016 William Gordon Casselman

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