10 fascinating words from old English we should bring back

words from old English
When you're working in a team, you may come across a mugwump or two. Source: AFP

English is an old language, dating back to before the year 1100.

Words from old English are those that survived from the earliest form of the language, which was spoken and written by the Anglo-Saxons, a mix of Germanic tribes from Scandinavia and Germany who migrated to the small island of Britannia. 

Today, the phrase “Old English” refers to the language that was the ancestor of Middle English and Modern English. Scholars place Old English in the Anglo-Frisian group of West Germanic languages.

Not much of it is left. Most of these words have become lost to the passage of time. 

The entire surviving body of Old English material from 600 to 1150 consists of only 3,037 texts (excluding manuscripts with minor variants) and amounts to a mere three million words, according to Toronto University’s “Dictionary of Old English Corpus.”

Those that did survive, however, became fundamental elements of the modern English vocabulary we know today. 

What are the benefits of learning words from old English?

There are many benefits of learning these ancient words:

  • Learning the surviving words from old English helps to improve your vocabulary. 
  • It’s a chance to dive deep into the historical development of this popular language which spans hundreds of years.
  • You’ll get a genuine appreciation of timeless classics, such as Beowulf and Chaucer’s work.
  • Studies have shown that exposure to a wide range of linguistic structures can helpboost your memory and ability to adapt to more new languages. 
  • It will give you another perspective or insight into a culture and mindset during that period.
  • Employers look favourably at bilingual individuals as it is proof of good communication skills. It also opens you up for high-skilled jobs in foreign countries. 
words from old English

Elflock means tangled or knotted hair. Source: AFP

10 words from old English you should learn to impress your friends and future employers

1. Elfock

Elflock means tangled or knotted hair.

Every now and then, a word begs for a vibrant revival simply because of its sheer, infectious charm. Enter “elflock.”  Originating in the late 1500s, it describes a tangled strand of hair as if woven by mischievous elves. 

Example sentence: Her hair was so unruly that it looked like she had been caught in an elflock after a windy day.

Reason to bring back: Reintroducing this word adds a touch of whimsy and nostalgia to discussions about personal grooming and self-care routines, reminding us of the enchanting aspects of everyday life.

It can also serve as a metaphor for the complexities and entanglements we encounter in our relationships and experiences.

2. Betwixt

Betwixt simply means between.

Betwixt is a true Old English term, dating back to before 950. It’s used to describe a position or situation that is situated between two things.

It can also be used to show a middle ground or uncertainty, like when you’re stuck deciding between pizza and sushi for dinner – you’re in a “betwixt” situation.

Example sentence: The old cottage was nestled betwixt the towering mountains and the tranquil river.

Reason to bring back: By resurrecting “betwixt,” we honour the beauty of words as it offers a poetic alternative to “between,” adding charm and elegance to modern communication.

words from old English

Love staying in bed? You might be a slugabed. Source: AFP

3. Slugabed

Slugabed means a lazy person who stays in bed excessively.

In the 1500s, people weren’t always early risers. “Slugabed” describes someone lazy, staying in bed well after everyone’s started their day.

The word “slug” comes from Middle English “slugge,” which means a lazy person or laziness itself. And “bed” comes from Old English “bedd,” which means a sleeping place or a garden bed.

The combination gives us this really relatable word that’s just right for a Monday morning.

Example sentence: During weekends, she fully embraced her inner slugabed and didn’t get out of bed until well past noon.

Reason to bring back: Today, “slugabed” perfectly reflects modern life. It captures the difficulty of leaving our cosy beds to attend a lecture we’re not interested in or to a job we see no future in.

By embracing “slugabed,” we can use humour to admit our shared wish to just do a little less in a world trying to do much.

4. Hagride

While it sounds like our beloved Hagrid from Harry Potter, “hagride” means “to trouble with worry, fear, necessity, or similar things; torment.” 

The term is connected to witchcraft—specifically, how witches were believed to ride brooms and trouble unsuspecting people with spells or bad dreams. Gradually, it started to refer to anything causing personal distress. 

Example sentence: The horror movie hagride me so much that I had trouble sleeping for days.

Reason to bring back: The word captures our mental anguish in this fast-paced, stress-filled world. By using “hagride,” we can convey the intensity of these inner struggles, making it a powerful tool in discussions around mental health and well-being. 

words from old English

Find yourself getting disturbed during your sleep? It could be an expergefactor. Source: AFP

5. Expergefactor

Expergefactor means something that rouses you from sleep.

This could be your alarm clock, your loved ones, or anything, which might lead you to hit the snooze button.

Example sentence: His old-fashioned expergefactor was so loud and annoying it sounded more like a shriek.

Reason to bring back: Which of us aren’t ruled by our alarm clocks? With everyone having to go somewhere in the early hours of the days, using “expergefactor” adds playfulness to how we see our daily rituals. 

6. Crinkum-crankum

Crinkum-crankum means elaborate and excessive decorations or details.

First known in 1670, this word (a noun) describes fancy decorations or details that might be a bit too much. It’s a fun word to say out loud.

Example sentence: The smartphone case was covered in so much crinkum-crankum – glitter, rhinestones, and flashy patterns – no one can take their eyes away. 

Reason to bring back: By including “crinkum-crankum,” into our lexicon, we can bring more attention to the beauty and intricacy found in design, art, and creativity. Who wouldn’t like more of that?

words from old English

If you can stay neutral and avoid getting involved in disagreements, you’re a mugwump. Source: AFP

7. Mugwump

Mugwump refers to someone in charge who stays neutral and avoids getting involved in disagreements or groups.

Originating from the mid 19th century, mugwump is a derogatory word for a person in charge who acts like they’re better than arguments and groups. 

Example sentence: Alex is being a real mugwump by staying neutral and trying to keep the peace, just like an unbiased angel.

Reason to bring back:  We can use the word to describe those who prioritise individual judgement and thoughtful decision-making over blind loyalty to any group. 

old words from english

Don’t trust everything you hear from a rawgabbit, one of the old words from English that refers to someone who talks about something with confidence, but little veracity. Source: AFP

8. Rawgabbit

Rawgabbit means someone who talks confidently (or gossip) about something they know nothing about.

But in reality, they don’t really know anything about that topic at all. They’re just acting like they do and speaking with a lot of confidence, even though they’re completely clueless. 

Example sentence: She was a total rawgabbit when it came to cars. She would talk for hours about horsepower, torque ratios, and aerodynamics, but if you asked her to change a flat tire, she’d be completely clueless.

Reason to bring back: Its relevance today lies in its ability to succinctly capture the abundance of empty talk and trivial conversations that often pervade our interactions, particularly in the age of social media and constant communication. By using “rawgabbit,” we can playfully call attention to the superficial or inconsequential discussions that can sometimes dominate our discourse. 

words from old English

Hugger-mugger refers to secretive or covert behaviour. Source: AFP

9. Hugger-mugger

Hugger-mugger means secretive or covert behaviour.

In use since the 16th century, it is an expressive word that signifies actions conducted in a secretive, concealed, or disorderly manner. 

Example sentence: The company’s hugger-mugger dealings raised suspicions among its employees, many of whom were kept in the dark from important decisions, processes and documents. 

Reason to bring back: With the rise of corporate shenanigans, the revival of the word “hugger-mugger” is timely. We can succinctly express the sense of hidden or disorderly behaviour that may otherwise be challenging to describe. 

10. Uhtceare

Uhtceare refers to the act of being awake and anxious before sunrise. 

It’s a common experience we all share, though we might not have been aware of a specific term for it. 

Example sentence: She experienced uhtceare as she lay in bed, unable to sleep, her mind riddled by anxiety.

Reason to bring back: We live in a world with no shortage of worries. Forget insomnia, uhtceare better captures those frustrating, sleepless moments filled with thoughts and concerns that tend to arise in the early hours.