At the Wording Desk
Increase your understanding of English vocabulary discovering the fascinating origin of our word 'elf'
A neglected sprite but welcome at Halloween
“Airy Elves by Moonlight Shadows seen”
– Alexander Pope
When long ago the first European ships disembarked their brutish cargo of scruffy immigrants on North America’s pristine shores, those more picayune members of the European fairy world, to wit, brownies, goblins, sprites and, in particular, teenie-weenie elves, with their sorcerous and occult endowment, did not stand a chance.
Large, thuggish aboriginal spirits like the northwestern trickster Raven or his eastern counterpart Nanubush were buffoons who played cheap tricks on humankind. To some southwestern tribes he was Coyote, to southeastern peoples Rabbit and Hare among the Sioux. He had many names: Iktomi and Winabojo. But he was a big, cloddish prankster, a snickerer of the night world, who, instead of bedazzling humans with bounteous slight-of-hand was the kind of imp who preferred to place a fart-cushion under the chief’s blanket. What a loss that we never welcomed clever elves to our continent!
Oh sure, Santa’s elves survived in fairy lore, but what a hump-backed crew of peevish munchkins they turned out to be! Santa's little suck-a-baby helpers slavishly carved wooden toys for nasty, ungrateful little children who never thanked them. Ever hear of a kid leaving out milk and cookies for Santa’s elves? No. Only Oreos for the fat man.
Fascinating Etymology of Elf
To undo the unjust desuetude into which the elfin realm has plunged, today we celebrate that neat word: elf. It appears to be a reflex of an odd and wonderful Indo-European root whose chief meaning was ‘evil white,’ white as a symbol of magic belonging to the night. In Old English it was ælf, with its West Saxon adjective ylfig ‘of the elfish world,’ a once useful attributive which did not survive into modern English. But see my word coinage below.
Elf is cognate with words in modern German. Der Alp is a goblin that squats on a sleeper’s chest and causes nightmares, featured in Henry Fuseli’s most famous painting, shown below. Folk belief said der Alp was a whitish sprite. The same ‘evil white’ root names the mountainous Alps in German, die Alpen. The Vikings knew these tiny terrors in their language of Old Norse, alfr.
"The Nightmare" is a 1781 oil painting by Anglo-Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (1741–1825)
Some of the other ancient words related to elf bear the glow of white magic. Consider Old English words for swan, ælbitu and ielfetu and Old High German albiz and elbiz ‘swan,’ or Latin albus ‘white,’ and Greek alphos ‘a white skin disease,’ along with Welsh elfydd ‘earth, world,’ and Russian lebed' swan.’
The root appears in a common English given name as Alfred, in Old English Ælfraed, literally ‘elf-advice,’ originally perhaps a shaman or Germanic wiseman who prudently took night counsel from the little people who dwelt in acorns and hid behind mushrooms during the day. Even an English monarch held the name, King Alfred the Great.
With All Due Humility, I Coin a New Word
I here do proffer a new word for your delectation and delight, from the Old English adjective ylfig which, had it come down into modern English through use, would today appear spelled: elfy. In the sprite-hoard of English words, there is a modest lacuna where elfy might serve. Elfy differs from the adjective elfin which nowadays chiefly denotes diminutive size. Elfy could be a solid synonym for pixilated ‘possessed by elves,’ ‘spellbound by fairy power.’ And here is one of my own exemplary sentences for your persusal:
The elfy tendrils of madness were already, by their dense neural thatch, obscuring the clear light of her reasoning.
The early Teutons thought elves did both good and evil. They exchanged “good” children for evil changelings. In an age before child psychology and before any knowledge of neurological deficits, this elf-exchange was a primitive attempt to explain why a normal child might suddenly “go mad” and do bad things.
An elf convenes a parliament of fowls.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the sprite Puck is an elf whom Shakespeare introduces to us in Act 2, Scene 1.
A fairy says:
“Either I mistake your shape and making quite;
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call’d Robin Goodfellow: are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villagery;
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn;
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm;
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck:
Are not you he?"
"Thou speak’st aright;
I am that merry wanderer of the night.”
And to conclude we cannot resist one final Shakespearean snippet, also from A Midsummer Night's Dream, taken from Oberon's valedictory at the end of the play:
“Now, until the break of day,
Through this house each fairy stray. . .
Trip away; make no stay;
Meet me all by break of day.”
Bill Casselman, October 25, 2016
Copyright William Gordon Casselman 2016
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