Etymology 101 meets Maxims I

(In which a lowly blogger bravely slays a hapax legomenon,  lances a festering etymological boil, elucidates a gnome, then has a good lie down.)

The herculean labours of early scholars of Anglo-Saxon often contain errors. Nevertheless we should be thankful to the likes of Kemble, Thorpe, Bosworth and Grein, for without their work we wouldn’t be reading Anglo-Saxon literature. But, as Holthausen and Köhler showed in the Introduction to their 1912 edition of Grein’s Dictionary, the task of correcting their errors is enormous:
[Es] konnte von einer gründlichen Neubearbeitung des “Sprachschatzes” auch jetz noch keine Rede sein, sonst hätte ja auch jedes Zitat nachgeprüft werden müssen! Es konnte sich also, ….. nur um Ausmerzung der gröbsten und augenfälligsten Fehler, Tilgung von Unworten, falschen Lesarten und Etymologien etc. handeln.

However, as I will show here, later generations of scholars have not yet succeeded in this work of “Ausmerzung der Fehler, Tilgung von Unworten, falschen Lesarten und Etymologien”. Hapax legomena in poetic works are particularly problematic and readers should be on the alert. Perhaps one day the modern Toronto Dictionary of Old English will help us, but don’t be too sure!

Riht Rogian?

Most editors and translators of Maxims I continue to mistranslate the word rogian at line 119 as ‘flourish’, relying on dictionary entries which go back to an unfounded conjecture by C W M Grein. Robert E. Bjork’s translation in his Old English Shorter Poems 2014 is the most recent example.

The ever scrupulous Blanche Colton Williams explained her reading as follows:
Th. ‘justice accuse’ and queries ‘Ohg. rogjan’
Spr., II, 383, “rogian (ahd. rukian) florere, crescere.” I follow this etymology.

[Th. = Thorpe B., Codex Exoniensis, 1842, Spr. = Grein, Sprachschatz der angelsaechsischen Dichter, 1861]

Benjamin Thorpe’s suggestion was rightly rejected by Williams. It translates (see next) to actual ohg. ruogan (modern German rügen), which is already reflected in oe. wregan, ‘accuse’, so won’t help us with rogian.

In order to understand Grein’s definition, we need to know that there isn’t actually an ohg. word rukian. German scholars tend to cite weak verbs of class I which are believed to have once had an ‘i’ in the final syllable of the infinitive by putting the ‘i’ back in and undoing any resulting consonant reduplication. So ‘rukian’ actually refers to ohg. rucchen. The English version of Groschopp’s abbreviation of Grein, Harrison & Baskerville 1885, gives modern German rücken as the etymological comparison. This goes back to ohg. rucchen, which seems to confirm what Grein was referring to by ‘rukian’. But all cognates of this mean ‘jerk’, ‘move forward’ and the o.e. reflex here is roccian, ‘rock’, not rogian.

The German copy of Grein which I consulted, the 1912 edition edited by Holthausen & Köhler, says ‘rogian (zu got. ragin) proficere, florere, crescere’. Gothic ragin is the reflex of O.E.regn- ‘very-‘ and o.n. ragin ‘counsel, the gods’. Which on grounds of both form and sense could hardly be the basis of our word either. Holthausen himself, in his 1934 dictionary, gives ‘blühen, gedeihen’, i.e. Grein’s translation and also refers the supposed root back to regin. So it looks like Grein’s subsequent editors have removed one false etymology and replaced it with another, retaining the false reading.

The more recent (2nd ed. 1916) Clark Hall appears to follow Grein and gives
“rogian to flourish, GNE119”

(where GNE = Maxims I)

To their great credit, Bosworth and Toller (1898) admit they have no idea what it means and Toller (1921) does not discuss it in the Supplement.
rogian (?)

Henry Sweet, of My Fair Lady fame, who disses Bosworth (but not Toller) as unscientific in the preface to his Student’s Dictionary, 1897, has a stab based merely on the context: “prevail (?)”

Perhaps wisely, neither Krapp & Dobbie nor Muir comment on rogian in their editions, which do not contain translations.

So C. W. M. Grein has constructed a spurious definition and etymology, which is still followed today. One assumes that the definition was somehow derived from the context, although as we shall see this is not really of much help. His subsequent editors have substituted his etymology with another equally spurious, but maintained the definition. In this they have been followed by Clark-Hall, Williams and most recently Bjork. Both Thorpe and Sweet also concocted definitions, which however don’t seem to have convinced anyone.

Grein also invented a duplicate meaning ‘made bright’ for gescæned by deciding that it couldn’t possibly mean ‘broken’, its otherwise well-attested meaning, in the Weallende Wulf passage of Solomon and Saturn II. He compares with o.h.g. giskeinan, which is the causative of skinan, ‘shine’ and translates ‘made bright’. ‘Broken’ is in fact exactly what it means, but this didn’t stop Clark Hall from following Grein. The real cause of this confusion may well be Kemble (1848), who mistranslated ‘sheathed’ more than a decade before Grein. Boswell and Toller cite both Kemble and Grein, but venture their own suggestion “ornamented (?)”, comparing another unknown word scenn from Beowulf, which might mean a decoration on a sword hilt. Sweet has only the entry for ‘broken’.

If the word gescæned were not already known, Grein’s approach would have merit. It is possible that an Old English causative of scinan would look something like *scænan, just as the causative of hnigan is (ge)hnægan. But unlike in ohg. there is no recorded verb of this form and the meaning ‘broken’ is already quite appropriate in the Weallende Wulf passage.

One can only guess how many other accepted definitions are based on the errors of early scholars. As can be seen from our two examples, hapax legomena in poetic works are particular problematic.

From the Deutsche Biographie site of the Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek we read:

Grein, Christian Wilhelm Michael 1825-1877
Einen grundlegenden Beitrag zur Erforschung der altenglischen Sprache leistete G. durch seinen „Sprachschatz der angelsächsischen Dichter“ (1861/64, Porträt). Mit seinen Übersetzungen sorgte er für die Verbreitung der Kenntnis angelsächsischer Dichtung. Gegen G., dessen berufliche Tätigkeit seine Forschung stark behinderte und der keine Gelegenheit hatte, die Handschriften in England einzusehen, wurde der unberechtigte Vorwurf des Dilettantismus erhoben.

In this case perhaps the Vorwurf was not so unberechtigt.

A Pause For Reflection Before Leaping In

Here, dear reader, I am about to tread on dangerous ground. Perhaps at this stage I should heed the warning of Solomon (Solomon & Saturn ll. 232-237) and quit while I’m ahead:

Dol bið se ðe gæð         on deop wæter,
se ðe sund nafað         ne gesegled scip
ne fugles flyht,         ne he mid fotum ne mæg
grund geræcan;         huru se godes cunnað
full dyslice,         dryhtnes meahta.

(See my post on the Weallende Wulf passage here.)

But, like the Weallende Wulf, and perhaps like Grein, the thrill of battle is upon me and I can’t stop myself.

OK, So What Does Rogian Mean If It Doesn’t Mean ‘Flourished’?

As we have seen and as Bosworth and Toller recognised, we have no idea what rogian means. Perhaps one day the modern Toronto Dictionary of Old English will help us, but to date they’ve only got up to the letter G. But while we wait, perhaps we can deduce the meaning.

Just to show there are no hard feelings against Grein, let’s see if we can use his method for good. The first thing to do is to look for other similar words in Old English and related languages. If we look for words starting with rog-, we immediately note that there aren’t any. If we widen the field to seek r*g-, ræg-, rag-, reag-, reg-, reog-, rieg-, rig-, riog-, rog-, rug-, ryg-) we get:

ræge: roe, wild she-goat; ræge-reósa:. A ridge of muscles up the back; ræg-hár: Grey like the goat; rægiming (?): A clapping of the wings (?); raggig: Shaggy, bristly, ragged as applied to the rough coat of a horse; ragu: Lichen; ragu-finc: The name of some bird; regn: Rain; regn-: in compounds has an intensive force, implies greatness, might; regnian: To set in order, arrange, dispose, regulate; regol: a rule; rignan: to rain, to cause rain to fall; rúg: v. rúh; rúh: rough, hairy, shaggy; Rug-ern: rye-harvest, the name of a month; ryge: Rye; rygen: Rye, of rye

None of these words looks particularly promising. But we know that a ‘g’ doesn’t always stand for an historical ‘g’ sound, sometimes it represents the half-vowel ‘j’, particularly where it is found before an ‘i’, as here. So perhaps the root isn’t r*g-, but ro- or at least r*- and the ‘g’ is a glide representing ‘j’ for ‘i’ in the infinitive ending  ‘-ian’. Now I’m not going to list all words starting with r + vowel. I’ll cut straight to the chase and tell you that the best candidate I can find for a word reflecting a suitable root is row, ‘quiet’, which is the same as German Ruhe. Here is a list of similar words from B-T:

row; adj. Quiet, calm, mild
row, e; f. Quiet, rest
rowan; To go by water, to row or sail
rowan (?) :– On hliór róuuit adplaudat, Wrt. Voc. ii. 99, 37.
rowend, es; m. A rower, sailor
rowet glosses remigium
rowness, e; f. Rowing
rowung, e; f. Rowing

Ignoring the words which have to do with (water-) rowing, and the uncertain verb rowan, which seems to mean ‘slap’, we can see that there are no known verbs based on the root ‘row-‘. Ohg. has ruowen, rawen, mod. German ruhen. So in a sense there is a space for a verb derived from ‘row-‘.

If this word is row + ian, it would be a class II week verb. According to Wright, OE Grammar, class II weak verbs are denominative. This means it should have a corresponding noun or adjective. Rowian would have both (row n., row adj.).
Here are some examples from Wright of class II weak verbs with the corresponding noun/adjective:

halgian, hallow -> halig
þrowian, suffer -> þrawu
welegian, enrich -> welig
tweog(e)an, doubt -> tweo
[originally class III:]
feog(e)an, hate -> fah
freog(e)an, love -> freo
smeag(e)an, ponder -> smeah
þreag(e)an, reprove -> þrea, þrawu

So rowian could come from row as þreag(e)an from þrea, þrawu or þrowian from þrawu. (Wright indicates §537 that there was originally a ‘g’ in tweog(e)an, so this is not a parallel.) Note that rouwen in ohg. is a class III weak verb and nearly all class III weak verbs became class II in Old English. (Wright).

The expected spelling would be rowian, but a small change in pronunciation at a late date (row-ian to row-jan to ro-jan, representing a simplification of 2 “clashing” glides, ‘w’ & ‘j’) is not hard to imagine. It should also be noted that in late texts, the spelling is in general far from perfect.

The full passage is:

Hean sceal gehnigan, adl gesigan
ryht rogian

The fact that adl doesn’t alliterate has caused many editors to amend it, but alliteration not always present in this poem when, as here, the line rhymes. But hadl has been suggested as an emendation and I have found hadlað for adlað in ‘Anglo-Saxon Prognostics – An Edition and Translation of Texts from London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius A.iii.’, R.M. Liuzza ed., Brewer 2011. So an emendation to hadl is quite possible.

It is still unclear whether the verb *rowian would have the meaning of “rest easy” or “bring rest” (c.f. German ruhen v. beruhigen). Of the above examples, halgian and welegian mean to bring about the state of the corresponding adjectives, while the remainder signify being in the state of the corresponding noun or adjective. Ryht rogian could therefore mean “the just rest easy” or “justice brings rest”. Note that the ohg. cognate ruowen means ‘rest’, not ‘pacify’.

Even if we have found a meaning for rogian, the meaning of the passage remains cryptic:

“The lowly shall bow, disease fall down,  right rest.”

Alarmingly enough, sigan (sans prefix), which also means fall, sink, has a secondary meaning of ‘ooze’! I don’t want to go there and I’m hanging on for dear life to the semantic efficacy of the ge- prefix in insisting on the meaning of ‘fall down’!

The theme connecting bowing, falling down and resting would then be “lowering”. This would also argue in favour of rogian meaning rest (easy), in the sense of lying down, as opposed to beruhigen. Perhaps something like this captures the meaning better:

“The lowly shall bow down, the sick collapse, the just repose serene”

Wow! Your humble correspondent is exhausted to the point of collapse. Time to bow out and go for a lie down, I’d say.


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