Why Word-Hoard?

As a lifelong student of history, folklore, myths and languages – and I do mean life-long! I spent as long as I possibly could as an undergraduate and I’m currently enjoying (some would say procrastinating) a long period of part-time postgraduate research. All through my studies, I’ve had a thing for collecting fascinatingly unique stories, phrases or words. Some of these have been spun out into research projects, individual conference presentations or essays; indeed my current masters thesis research is the fruit of many a year’s worth of tidbits. Yet other words or images have languished, alone and unread after the initial joy of their finding. I have long wanted to do something with all these disparate words and ideas, and so here I am, writing a blog dedicated to all of those small gems within my own word-hoard – because one can’t and shouldn’t keep all the words to oneself like a miser with all their gold, or like a dragon with their hoard. Or like the Library in the Name of the Rose, that vast labyrinth of papyrus and parchment whose contents were only available to a select few, guarded and grudgingly apportioned by generations of Librarians.

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The Name of the Rose, 1986. Brilliant film – almost as good as the book.

Actually, that’s not the best example to use, since what I am trying to achieve here is quite the opposite: I wish to share my accumulated words and muse upon their meanings and their origins, not keep them locked away. It’s as if I were to give each of the monks not just within that Abbey, but within all the other abbeys, and indeed outside of any ‘abbeys’ entirely; giving invitations and keys to all and any of the people who wish to come within, whether through plain curiosity, or to challenge or debate my conclusions (nicely please!), and maybe, just maybe, there may be the odd soul who comes through the open doors of the Library and learns something which they did not know before.

Perhaps that sounds somewhat pompous, but these first tentative steps towards publicly discussing one’s very thought processes, feels at once both liberating and terrifying. It really is just as if you did give out thousands and thousands of keys to your home to complete strangers … and don’t know who’s going to use their key, or when! But I digress. (And there’ll be quite a bit of this, I’m afraid! Prepare for Beowulfian levels of digression!) For now, I wish to ruminate on why I find ‘word-hoard’ to be so evocative.

I’m certainly not the first person to have ever used the term, and I certainly do not claim any degree or originality here – many hundreds, and likely thousands of scholars have used this term in their own translations or original works. For myself is not just the meaning of the word, but how it came to be coined that makes it such a beautiful word.

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The most common sort of hoard in Old English poetry: a goldhord. J.R.R. Tolkein’s original illustration, The Hobbit, 1937.

It is technically a calque, or a literal borrowing, of the Old English (OE) wordhord into Modern English, and we use it now virtually unchanged in meaning from it’s original. However, wordhord itself is not a common occurrence in the OE corpus, with this exact compound occurring only eight times. On five of the eight occasions, wordhord is followed by the verb onleác, ‘(s)he unlocked’ (Andreas, 315, 601; Beowulf, 258; The Metres of Boethius, 6.1; Widsið, 1), once by onwreáh, ‘he uncovered/opened’ (Vainglory, 3), once as bewritan in gewitte wordhordes cræft, ‘ (Order of the World, 17), and once hordword is followed by onhlid, ‘(s)he opened, disclosed’ (Riddles, 5/84.54). Hana Videen on her blog, Old English Wordhord, describes this word most precisely and carefully:

As with any hoard the contents of a wordhord are valuable, if not to everyone at least to the person doing the hoarding. These contents may be removed from the hoard under special circumstances when the hoard is ‘unlocked’. A wordhord represents a scop’s arsenal, the valuable raw materials of the poet or speech-bearer (OE reordberend).

The idea that each person – or at least each noble heroic protagonist if we are being truly pedantic about our sources – carries within themselves a cache of words and phrases that are by definition precious, and in some way provide not just a store of linguistic riches upon which that person can draw, but as each person’s own word-hoard must, by definition, differ from every other person’s, even if only infinitesimally, then we can surely argue that each person is in some way defined by their store of words – that it must form a vital part of that person’s identity.

Let’s look at wordhord from another angle for a moment.

  • The OE word, ‘utterance, speech, statement, news, word’, from the  Proto-Germanic (PG) *wurda- and Proto Indo-European (PIE) *were-, ‘speak, say’, seems to have still retained the older sense of ‘promise, vow’, within its semantic range. Perhaps one could even go so far as to argue that a spoken word = the truth equation underlies this aspect of its etymology.
  • OE hord, ‘treasure, hidden place’ can be traced back through the PG *huzda, ‘treasure’ to the PIE root *skeu- meaning to cover or conceal. (Which word is also the ancient putative progenitor of both the Latin cutis, ‘skin’ and obscurus, ‘dark, shadowed’; Greek kytos, ‘vessel, a hollow’ and keutho, ‘to cover, to hide’; OE hyd, ‘a hide, ie skin’ and hydan ‘to hide, conceal’; Welsh cuddio, ‘to hide’; and even Middle High German hode ‘scrotum’ among many other words. But this is another discussion for another time perhaps).

From these associations, I would therefore understand wordhord to be a ‘hidden/ concealed/secret word/truth’ that always appears together with a verb that means the opposite of hidden; whether onhlídan, onlúcan or onwreón, all have the sense of ‘to uncover, disclose, open, display, reveal’. Therefore, as poetic as ‘unlocking his word-hoard’ sounds, I would like to instead offer the translation of ‘revealing his (true) identity’ for this phrase.

Thus together we have the wonderful image in these OE poems of the hero –  whether that is Andreas, Beowulf, Christ himself in disguise

John Henry F. Bacon’s 1910 illustration of Unferð addressing Beowulf in Heorot – but not unlocking his word-hoard.

– who, when they are described as unlocking and opening their word-hoards, are thereby uncovering their treasures, and thus literally revealing their true identity to their audience, both in the action of the poem, and in breaking through the fourth-wall in disclosing their true identity to the poem’s audience. Some of you may have already guessed that the opening image of this post is of this very line in Beowulf where he unlocks his word-hoard; in which he speaks for the first time. It cannot be a coincidence then that at the end of Beowulf’s life, when Wiglaf is reviving him one last time, his very last words are so very similar to his first when they are preceded by oð þæt wordes ord bréosthord þurhbræc, ‘until the point of speech burst through the hoard of his breast’ (Beowulf, 2791-92; translation DiNapoli, 2016). It is one further example of the unity of this poem, that we have Beowulf identify himself in this way at both his entrance and his exit from the poem.

But while this wonderful compound wordhord may well have survived into Middle English (ME) and beyond, such proof is not to be found in the written texts. Instead, the first instance that we have of this word reappearing in the English lexicon, is (according to the OED) in 1842 when one Benjamin Thorpe, that pioneer of Old English studies, uses the compound in a literal translation of the OE word, and further examples from the 19th century all use ‘word-hoard’ only in the context of commentary on or translation of OE texts. It is only in the 20th century that this word has gained a life of its own and a meaning that is separate from an OE context.

But how does it compare to its modern synonyms? Lexicon, as applied to both a physical dictionary, glossary or or an individual’s vocabulary first appears at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, and even before its appropriation by the new discipline of linguistics in the 19th century, it was a learned, intellectual word, being a loan word derived from the Greek lexis, ‘word’. Screen Shot 2018-11-01 at 11.53.21 PMBoth glossary and vocabulary are Latin coinages that seem to have come into English a century or so earlier than lexicon, but with pretty much the same range of meaning, except that they are equally applied to lists of foreign words as they are to English words. Written instances of jargon first appear in ME, in the 14th century, and original meaning of the twittering and chattering of birds and humans morphed into a term almost of contempt for the speech of meaningless talk which the listener cannot understand, or which is actual nonsense. As the word came directly from the Old French jargo(u)n, it is very tempting contextualise it in the centuries after the Norman Conquest when the ruling classes mostly spoke Norman French, while many of their subjects spoke a language that was rapidly transitioning from Old English to Middle English. In the 16th century jargon took on a meaning not just of the undecipherable, but of the cipherable – ie the language of spycraft and intelligence, and from there it may well have been applied to other intellectual argots – which to the uninitiated are unintelligible; and thus the word has come full circle.

But word-hoard is different. It may now be a synonym of all these other, later, words, but as my brief exploration seems to show, it originally, in the Old English poems in which it has been recorded, was more narrow in its meaning. In any number of OE glossaries, it is taken as a kenning for ‘vocabulary’; as just another richly poetic way of describing or introducing speech. And that may well have been its context in spoken OE for all we know. But I think that we should treat this word with greater care, and understand it semantically and contextually, for then it does not herald the range of a word-scop’s vocabulary, but instead provides an instant aural clue (or red flag if I’m being really synaesthetic) that the speaker is about to disclose their true identity.

And perhaps that’s why this word resonates so strongly for me. For it is through the unlocking of my own word-hoard here in this blog, that I feel that I am in a sense announcing my entrance to this online world, that I will uncover not just my own words, but those of others, and, humbly (though it may not sound that way – trust me – I mean it!), I hope to reveal, disclose, and uncover some of their truth within.


Featured image: Cotton Vitellius A XV, f.137V

5 thoughts on “Why Word-Hoard?

  1. Hi, Erica, and congratulations! A very satisfying start! And it’s kind of you to cite me as well . . . Just one further thought about OE wordhord: the treasure-chest ‘hord’ in the mead-hall stood beside the ‘gief-stol’ or gift-seat. From it the cyning drew the gifts that passed from his hands to his retainers’ in exchange for the loyal service they offer him. That ideal of exchange lies near the heart of the whole business. It’s the very antithesis of modern capitalism’s notion of metered wage-labour (not to mention late capitalism’s recent one-percent concentration of ludicrous wealth)–the point was not to ‘hoard’ gold in the modern sense but to gather it in order to keep it in healthy circulation, like systole and diastole of a healthy heart.

    Anyway, it strikes me that the scopas’ notion of the wordhord entails something analogous: the poet toils like a smith in his forge to shape his words, but he distributes his labour freely (no publishing royalties in them days! not that poets ever collected that much . . .), often, as tradition has it, to a mead-hall assembly. His role and the generous king’s are exactly analogous in different media. Both gold and words, in this ideal, are ‘well wrought’, bewunden mid cræfte, their higher value worked into them by the valour of cyning and dryht and the skill and imagination of smiþ and scop alike.


    1. Thanks, Bob! You make an excellent point, and one which I neglected. Because both ‘word’ and ‘hord’ are such ubiquitous words in the corpus, I did not examine either of them in any great detail, and just focussed on their compound. And of course I only had the meaning of a hidden treasure in my mind.

      It’s a wonderful image that the lord’s real hord was by his chair in the hall, making it that bit more of a contrast when the scop did get up and perform for the lord: the one with the visible external riches, and the other with the invisible internal riches, yet equally skilfully crafted, as you noted!

      And then the examples of wordhord the compound, all have the hero, or lord (as other characters don’t seem to be introduced by wordhord), of the story opening, revealing, not the visible hord beside him, but that invisible hord within him. I think your explanation adds a lovely layer of meaning here that I had initially missed.


  2. This is fascinating: I know very little Old English and only really began to understand it (a little) after learning Dutch. I had assumed that word hoard was simply ‘re-borrowed’ as a humorous translation of the Dutch and German words for vocabulary: woordenschat and Wortschatz (schat/Schatz means treasure: a treasure chest is a schatkist/Schatzkiste).


    1. Thanks, Dani! And thanks for sharing your lovely words. The treasure element is also super interesting, as it derives from the Proto-Germanic word *skattaz, ‘cattle, treasure, coins’.


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