Using Online Dictionaries to Research Old English

One of my favorite classes to teach is History of the English Language, and ever since I first started teaching it as Carol Percy’s TA at Toronto, I’ve been using an assignment geared toward getting students comfortable with using Old English dictionaries, even if, as is usually they case, they don’t use Old English. At Toronto, we had the benefit of a subscription to the Dictionary of Old English, but at my current university, New Mexico Highlands, we don’t. But fortunately, the DOE has free accounts for individuals to access the material up to 20 times, which I find is generally sufficient for almost all student needs in HEL. This semester I did a thorough revision of my handout introducing students to dictionary resources, and I thought I would post it up in case others wanted to make use of it in their own teaching, whether in a classroom or self-directed. Feel free to share favorite search techniques as well. I tend to go through it in class up on a screen with students, with plenty of side excursions based on their input (this semester we got distracted by compounds for teeth). It’s easy to spend anywhere from an hour to two hours on something like this, and I tend to follow it up with an essay using the resources to analyze select compounds in Old English poetry (I’ve used BeowulfMaldon, and Brunanburh in the past).

OE Dictionaries handout

Old English Lexicography: Online Resources

There are three main dictionaries available to you in some form online, and two of the three are also available in hard copy. Unlike later periods, the OED is of only limited use in studying Old English, because it does not include any words that do not survive from Old English in later periods, and because it is organized based on modern, rather than medieval, spelling.

The three main dictionaries available to you are:

A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary by John R. Clark Hall (Clark Hall)

An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary edited by Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller (Bosworth Toller)

The Dictionary of Old English, A-H, edited by Angus Cameron, Ashley Crandell Amos, Antonette diPaolo Healey, et al. (DOE)

Clark Hall and Bosworth-Toller are both available in hard-copy in the reference section in NMHU’s Donnelly Library. I will also put my copy of Clark Hall above the mailboxes in Prescilla’s office, and you are welcome to make short term use of it in the building, although I would ask that you keep it here and return it when you are done. (For people on the internet, obviously you can’t come in to the department secretary’s office to consult these dictionaries, but I would guess that many university libraries have copies of both Clark Hall and Bosworth-Toller in their reference sections).

Each dictionary has different strengths and is suited for different tasks.

Clark Hall only provides very brief entries, and is most useful as a quick reference while translating.

Bosworth-Toller provides much fuller entries, including example quotations, but it also suffers from some of the eccentricities of its nineteenth-century editors, perhaps most clearly seen in the entry for “Beowulf”, in which Bosworth speculates at some length about the existence of an undiscovered saga about Beowulf mouldering in a Swedish library. Bosworth-Toller is the dictionary equivalent of an eccentric uncle.

The DOE contains the most comprehensive entries for words and is the gold standard for lexicographic research in the field. But the DOE project, which began in 1970, is still ongoing, and at present has only published entries up to the letter H.

Using Clark Hall

Online access to Clark Hall is provided by the Germanic Lexicon Project at Penn, which hosts images of the pages of the hard copy of the dictionary. Each image is referenced based on the first and last headwords on the page.


Thus, the first image is of the page containing all the entries from a to ablisian. Clark Hall (and other dictionaries) alphabetize special characters as follows: æ comes between ad and af, and þ/ð come immediately after entries for t. OE dictionaries typically choose to consistently use one character or the other of þ/ð consistently in all headwords, although this can lead to an amusing situation in which sometimes headwords are given with spellings that never actually occur in extant Old English texts.

Because you have to click through multiple pages, rather than riffling through them like you would the hard copy, the online scans of Clark Hall can in practice be a little unwieldy, especially, if you end up having to flip pages due to spelling variation. But Clark Hall is still the most convenient dictionary if you just want to know what a word means with as little fuss as possible.


Here is a sampling of entries. They typically give the bare minimum of information. The abbreviations to the right indicate which texts the word may be found in. There is a list of signs and abbreviations provided at the beginning of the dictionary, which you can use if you want to know what particular abbreviations mean. The entry for goldsmið, for instance, contains an Æ, indicating that this word is found in the works of the author Ælfric.

Using Bosworth-Toller

The online Bosworth-Toller is a little more user friendly than Clark Hall, as it actually allows you to search the dictionary. What’s more, the search box actually has an auto-complete feature. This is very useful when looking up Old English words. When you encounter an Old English word in the wild, it will often have an inflectional ending which won’t be present in a dictionary headword. Thus, it can be useful to focus on entering the first syllables of a word and using the auto-complete feature to let you see which options possibly best reflect your word.

Another tricky thing about searching for Old English headwords is that, while the consonants in Old English tend to be relatively stable, the same cannot be said for the vowels, which may change due to mutations or in strong verbs or due to the dialect of the source. If you have difficulty locating a word with the auto-complete option in a simple search, it may help to try the advanced search option.


Sometimes doing a headword search with the “contains” or “starts with” options will be the ticket for finding a word that is eluding simpler searches. The “contains” option is also a very useful way for identifying morphological elements. For instance, doing a “contains” search for gold will bring up all the entries that contain that element. This can be very useful when looking for compounds in Old English.

The “find entry that:” search box can be useful if you want to try out a variant spelling, but its downfall is that it may pull up entries that don’t pertain to the word at all, but merely contain it as part of one of its example quotations. Judicious use of this box can be helpful, but also frustrating, as it will typically bring back way more results than are relevant to your search. One way it can be useful, however, is as a way of doing reverse look-ups based on a modern English word, although again, depending on the word you may end up getting more than you expected.

Sometimes this process can be a little bit tricky. If you wanted to know the Old English word(s) for shit, for instance, you wouldn’t find any entries unless you played around with synonyms a bit. A search for poop leads to the etymologically unrelated nautical word for poop-deck (from the Latin puppis), and bowel movement also gives no results. Thinking like an eccentric 19th century lexicographer turns out to be challenging at times. But excrement is a far more rewarding search term. Dung, while a common term in the definitions, actually turns out to be a bad search term because of the prevalence of the –ung suffix in Old English words.

Entries in Bosworth-Toller provide more information than those in Clark Hall. The entry for goldsmiþ (notice that Bosworth-Toller uses þ instead of ð), for instance, looks like this:


Here we get illustrative quotations and a much fuller indication of potential sources, although again, interpreting the sources often requires more advanced knowledge of the field. These fuller entries mean that Bosworth-Toller is a much more useful dictionary for research purposes, and is especially useful for headwords that have not yet been published by the DOE.

Creating an Account to Access the DOE

The DOE is a subscription based service, and unfortunately I don’t think I can convince the library to get an institutional subscription for the benefit of this one class. But, fortunately for us, the DOE allows you to have free access up to 20 times per year, which should be plenty for the assignments we will be working on in this class. There is an FAQ that explains how to sign-up for free access to the DOE on the main page (, but I will also provide screenshots of the whole process.

The first step is to go to the DOE Project Online Store and click Login. Make sure that you don’t click on any of the options to purchase a subscription.


On the Login page, select the option for New Customer


The next page will require you to enter a bunch of information about yourself. I can say from personal experience that the DOE is not going to sign you up for a bunch of mailing lists or anything of the sort. No unwanted e-mails about increasing the size of your lexicon.


Once you have filled out the required information, you will be sent to a confirmation page, at which point you are ready to begin accessing the DOE.

Using the DOE

The reason the DOE is such a time-consuming project is that it is attempting to be a comprehensive dictionary of the language. Before they even began writing entries, they created a searchable corpus of all texts written in the period (sometimes including multiple manuscript variants for key texts). The DOE takes account of all known instances of a word being used in extant sources and includes information about the number of occurrences, attested spellings, and provides much fuller examples of illustrative quotations. Looking at the entry for gold-smiþ demonstrates what this looks like in action. The DOE also includes this as a sample entry accessible from the main page. This sample entry can be very useful to consult if you don’t remember what the parts of an entry are. However, the links on the sample entry are non-functional. This entry looks like this:


Noun, m., cl. 1

Att. sp.: goldsmiþ, goldsmið, golsmiþ (ÆColl) || goldsmiðes || goldsmiþe || goldsmiðas; goldsmiðes (, Rec 20.1)

15 occ.


Met 10.33: hwær sint nu þæs wisan Welandes ban, þæs goldsmiðes, þe wæs geo mærost? (Bo 19.46.16 þæs foremeran & þæs wisan goldsmiðes ban Welondes; cf. BOETH. Cons.Phil.metr. 2.7.15 ubi nunc fidelis ossa Fabricii manent?).

ÆCHom I, 4 209.92: ealle þas goldsmiðas secgað þæt hi næfre ær swa clæne gold ne swa read ne gesawon (cf. Vit.Iohan. 2.57.2 omnium aurificum <officinas> circuiuimus, et omnes dixerunt tam purum … se nunquam uidisse aurum).

Gen 4.22: be Sellan he gestrynde Tubalcain, se wæs ægðer ge goldsmið ge irensmið (L slecgwirhta & smið on eallum weorcum <æres & ysenes> [MS ærest of ysene]; cf. Gn: malleator et faber in cuncta opera aeris et ferri).

Ch 1497 50: and freoge mon Man hire goldsmið, & his eldestan sunu.

Ch 543 1.1: þis his þas anes hiwisces boc at Winterburnan, & ðas oþres hiwisces on Whit þe þærto hyrþ, þe Eadred cyng gebocode Ælfsige his goldsmiþe on eche hyfte.

Rec 9.3 1: her is on þysse Crystesbec siu geswytelung þære healfre hyde æt Pottune þe Ælfhelm Leofsige sealde hys goldsmiþe.

Rec 20.1 1: Ælfric and Wulfwine Eadgife goldsmiðes geafen to broþerrædenne twegen orn weghenes goldes þæt is on þis ilce boc her foruten gewired.

ÆColl 205: habeo fabros, ferrarios, aurificem, argentarium, ęrarium, lignarium et multos alios uariarum artium operatores ic hæbbe smiþas, <isensmiþas>, goldsmiþ, seoloforsmiþ, arsmiþ, treowwyrhtan & manegra oþre mistlicra cræfta biggenceras.

ÆGl 301.15: aurifex goldsmið.

ClGl 1 498: aurifex goldsmið (perh. from ISID. Etym. 19.1.2 artifex generale nomen vocatur quod artem faciat, sicut aurifex qui aurum [facit]).

ClGl 2 515: aurifex goldsmiþ.

AntGl 4 1289: aurifex goldsmið (perh. from ISID. Etym. 19.1.2 quoted above).

Fort 72: sumum wundorgiefe þurh goldsmiþe gearwad <weorþað>; ful oft he gehyrdeð ond gehyrsteð wel, brytencyninges beorn (‘for some marvellous gifts are prepared by the goldsmith’; the word has alternatively been taken as an otherwise unattested compound *goldsmiþu or *goldsmīþ, synonymous with ON gullsmíþ ‘goldsmithery, goldsmith’s art / work’).

  1. glossing ferrarius‘blacksmith’ as if aurifex‘goldsmith’

ÆColl 231: ferrarius respondit se golsmiþ andwyrt (cf. ÆColl 205 quoted above).

Lat. equiv. in MS: aurifex

See also: gold, smiþ

MED gōld-smith. OED2 goldsmith. DOST goldsmyth. PNE gold-smið.

The main downfall of the DOE from a student’s perspective is that illustrative quotations aren’t translated. But if you need assistance working through some of the examples for your essay, please let me know and I will be happy to help.

Before you do any searches, make sure that you login. In the upper right hand corner on the main search page, there is a small box that will either say User (if you haven’t logged in) or your name (if you have).

The DOE is searchable in a range of ways. Most obviously, you can search by headword. However, there are a large number of ways to search that can help you in your research. The search function is available once you have entered the main dictionary. It is located immediately above the section entitled “Short Titles and Bibliography,” which is another useful section if you do not know the Short Title for a given work.

Many OE words are difficult to look up because the inflected form of a word does not necessarily have a similar spelling, especially with regards to vowels, as the base form of the word. If you have trouble locating a word in the DOE (up to H), simply search under the field Attested Spelling. For example, if you were reading the gloss to the Lindisfarne Gospels and came upon the word bulgon, you might be confused. But a search of the DOE by attested spelling shows that it appears under the headword belgan. This will almost always be the easiest way to look up a word that appears in a text you are translating, and it is in my mind the thing that makes the DOE incredibly convenient.

My favorite kind of search in the DOE is the Occurrence field, which you can use to search for how often words appear. However, when using it keep in mind (as always) that it only searches up to H. However, the Occurrence field is even more powerful when used in conjunction with another field: Citation Reference. To use multiple fields click the More Fields button on the search page. In Occurrence type the number of occurrences you are interested in and give the short title of the work in the Citation Reference field. As an example, let’s use Beowulf, whose short title is Beo.

A search for 2 occurrences where at least one is in Beo returns 199 results under 138 entries (the extra results are due to words that occur twice within the same poem). Let’s take a look at the second result, ān-pæþ. This word, which means “a path for one person, narrow path, defile” occurs in two locations, Exodus (short title Ex) and Beowulf. We see that not only do the two poems share the word, but they share an entire phrase, “enge anpaðas, uncuð gelad.” Using the occurrence field in this way can help reveal contextual connections between works. Words that have only a single occurrence are a special case, and are referred to as hapax legomenon (sg., plural is hapax legomena or informally hapaxes). These words are actually quite common in OE, both due to the limited number of extant manuscripts and due to the frequency of compounding as a stylistic device in OE verse. The term hapax legomenon is fairly common in studies of ancient languages. For instance, biblical scholars might identify hapax legomena that only appear once in the entire Bible.

Using the DOE Web Corpus

Even though the DOE only goes up to H, the body of material on which it is based is all available online and you are encouraged to make use of it as well in your research. The Web Corpus is also available from the DOE front page. Just click on the link for Subscribers underneath the Web Corpus. When searching the web corpus, there are a couple of important things to keep in mind. The first is that special characters are entered through the use of capitals. A=æ, D=ð, and, T=þ. Also keep in mind that the web corpus does not recognize variant spellings on its own. Consequently it is generally useful to leave out case-endings, which would needlessly eliminate valuable results. Because it does not recognize variants, it may be useful to perform multiple searches using different variants. If the word you are searching for comes before H, use the attested spellings from the DOE to find all the citations for a word. If the word does not come before H, use the variants listed in Bosworth-Toller as a starting place, and on your own perform multiple searches using common variants. For instance, in words that contain eth or thorn, it will be important to search for both variants.

Searching the web corpus can show how words appear in different contexts. For example, the last word of Beowulf is lofgeornost, which is generally translated as most eager for praise. A Web Corpus search for lofgeorn reveals 12 instances of the word.


Each result gives the short title as well as a letter/number combination. This is referred to as the Cameron number (named for Angus Cameron, the first editor of the DOE). Cameron numbers provide quick identification of texts, and the letter corresponds to the type of text, as follows:

A: Poetry

B: Prose

C: Interlinear glosses

D: Glossaries

E: Runic inscriptions

F: Non-runic Inscriptions

If you need more information about a text, clicking on the blue link will pull up the full bibliographic information.

We know based on the Cameron numbers that Beowulf is the only poetic source. All the other instances of lofgeorn are Bs, that is, prose. Furthermore, if we make reference to the short title list available within the DOE, we can determine what the other texts are.

For instance, the second entry is:

ÆLS (Memory of Saints)   B1.3.17

  1. [0081 (300)] Se seofoða leahter is iactantia gecweden, þæt is ydelgylp on ængliscre spræce þæt is ðonne se man bið lofgeorn and mid licetunge færð, and deð for gylpe gif he hwæt dælan wile, and bið þonne se hlisa his edlean ðære dæde and his wite andbidað on ðære toweardan worulde.

The short title ÆLS (Memory of Saints) corresponds to Memory of Saints in Ælfric’s Lives of Saints. The prose texts given by our search are all saints’ lives or homilies or translations of the Benedictine Rule. A partial translation is: “The seventh sin is called iactantia, that is idle-boasting in English, that is when someone is eager for praise…

We can see here that although Beowulf is described as someone exemplary within a pagan tradition as most eager for praise, there is a double meaning in the Christian context of the poem, so that the audience sees Beowulf as aspiring to pre-Christian ideals that are ultimately at odds with Christian conceptions of morality.

As an example from another poem, we could choose the compound wælstow from line 95 of The Battle of Maldon, which means battlefield, literally, slaughter-place. The line reads “god ana wat / hwa þære wælstowe wealdan mote” (god alone knows who may control the battle-field).

To search the DOE Corpus, enter wAlstow into the search field, leaving off the inflectional ending to get the greatest number of hits. The Corpus search reveals 45 hits. Looking up the short titles tells us that the word occurs primarily in poetry and chronicle texts. Furthermore, even without knowing much OE, we can see that wælstow tends to occur in conjunction with words related to wealdan, to control or wield. The emphasis placed on alliteration in the lines serves to heighten the connection between battlefield and control. One way you could go with your essays would be to search for other connections between words.

In searching the Web Corpus, it may be useful to limit your searches to poetry (although as seen by the previous example, restricting your searches could cause you to miss other details). In order to limit searches to verse, simply enter a in the field “Restrict to one of more works using Cameron number.” Make sure to use a lower case a, as the site will interpret an upper case letter as an ash character, and you won’t get any results.

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Grieving Michael

Sometime in the morning on July 15th, my older brother Michael died in his sleep. It managed to be both completely unexpected and all too expected. For those who didn’t know Michael, he had Down syndrome and lived at home with my parents. In recent years he had been having more and more health problems, although I don’t think anyone anticipated that his death would be so sudden and so unanticipated. In the past few days, all of his friends, as well as mine, my sister’s, and my parents’, have been sharing their thoughts about Michael. To know him was to be his friend, and for him to have your phone number was to be guaranteed that there would always be a voicemail waiting for you on your phone. Always.

I wanted to share some of my favorite memories of Michael, but they’re all a mess. I have no organizational scheme beyond fondness.

Some of my earliest memories of Michael aren’t even properly my own memories. They’re the stories that my parents have told so many times that they have become mine. Michael and I shared a room until I reached 5th grade. I had the top bunk and he had the bottom, an arrangement that suited me just fine, because it meant that the giant fox that lived under the bed would eat him first. One night, after I had fallen asleep (this must have been before I learned to read), Michael got out of bed and pulled open our tub of Legos and began playing with them. When my mom opened the door and saw him in the middle of Legos strewn all over the floor, she asked him in mock concern, “Michael! Who made this mess?” Without missing a beat, Michael pointed to me asleep in the top bunk and said, “Peter!”

While I was still in elementary school, I became very concerned about where I would go to college. I was abetted in this concern by my dad, who had me do research on all the schools I was interested in. I remember that I decided I wanted to attend either Northern Arizona or Ohio State, and I even wrote letters of interest to them. I can’t imagine what those admissions officers made of a letter from a ten year old. What I don’t remember, but my dad does, is that I became very concerned about where Michael would go, and ended up deciding that he would go and live with me in college. Though Michael didn’t go to Kansas or Toronto with me, he always wanted shirts and hats from my schools, and whenever I came home to visit he made sure that he was decked out in the appropriate clothing.

We were often together growing up. He was my audience when I practiced the cello, and I frequently ended up as his interpreter, whether for people who weren’t used to parsing his speech or sometimes my parents when they couldn’t understand him, although I also sometimes pretended I didn’t know what he was saying if it was something that was going to get me into trouble. We were neither of us perfect angels, though we both liked to pretend that we were.

My last year of high school, I got really into the Gilmore Girls, and I made a point of watching it regularly. When I went away for college the next year, Michael continued watching it, because it was Peter’s show.

A few years ago, Michael and I engaged in a war of passive aggression. I broke my ankle while visiting home in Fargo, and ended up being confined to the lower level of my parents house for a month, where my only options were to lie in bed or lie in a recliner in the downstairs TV room. This, unfortunately for both of us, was Michael’s TV room (not to be confused with the TV in his bedroom, the TV in the kitchen, or the TV in the upstairs TV room). This was the TV where he watched his favorite 90s shows on DVD (Full House and Diagnosis Murder) as well as his after dinner movie. Full House was the worst. He watched it with the volume way up, and over the years he had memorized all the dialog, which he would shout along with Uncle Jesse. I would regularly awaken from my painkiller-imposed drowsiness to him yelling joyously at the TV, and if I asked him to turn it down, more often than not he would turn the volume up. If I was watching TV, he would take the remotes and move them across the room. I responded to these opening gambits by figuring out what his schedule for watching TV was and putting movies on ten minutes before he came down. Brothers always love each other, but they don’t always like each other, and we spent that month figuring out how far we were willing to push each other. When telling me to go back to Toronto didn’t succeed, he moved on to trying to play for sympathy. When my parents were with us, he took to collapsing at the bottom of the steps, grabbing his ankle, and moaning loudly, “My leg, my leg!” But when I could finally leave the house on my own, one of my first trips was to take him to see the last Harry Potter movie. We didn’t always get along, but it was always temporary.

Probably the greatest thing I ever did, in Michael’s eyes, was marry Renee. He was enamored of her from the start, especially because she gave him her phone number the first time I brought her home for Christmas after four months of dating. Amy and I liked to joke that Renee was the sibling Michael loved best, because of the three of us she was the most likely to pick up her phone. I learned in grad school that I had to leave my phone on silent all the time. The moment I forgot and left it off silent was the moment that Michael called me in the middle of Latin class. I warned her that first time I brought her home that at some point, Michael would tell her (and me) to go back home, which he always did whenever our presence interfered with his schedule in some way. But such admonitions were short-lived, and he was always happier to have us there than to see us going. He was so excited for our wedding, especially to walk up the aisle as a groomsman with Renee’s sister.

He was a big fan of Renee’s family, and was a critical factor in how much our mothers talked to each other on the phone, through a maneuver well known to most of his phone correspondents, the Michael phone pass, in which he called you, and then proceeded to hand the phone over to every other person in the room with him to say hello. It wasn’t enough for Michael to talk to you. He had to make sure you had a chance to talk to everyone he was with too, which is how I’ve ended up awkwardly saying hello to many of his friends over the years.

When I visited Fargo, we had a couple of time honored traditions. First, we always had to go for ice cream together at least once. Second, we would go out to eat together at Olive Garden and then go see a movie. He usually picked the movie out months in advance, by careful consultation of movie release dates, which he had an encyclopedic knowledge of, and our phone calls would usually feature some planning about what movie we were going to. No parents were allowed on these trips, although Amy and Renee were invited if they were in town.

I also occasionally taught Michael how to use the internet, accidentally at first, but then on purpose. When I was in college, I read the NYTimes fairly regularly, and when I was home I set up a bookmark in our browser. It stayed there when I went back to college, but Michael found it and realized that he could get entertainment news about movie stars, which he became remarkably good at discovering. But the most exasperating thing, from my parents’ perspective, that I introduced Michael to was a website for watching current movie trailers. He was thrilled, my mother was not, as she quickly found herself hauled to the computer room on a regular basis to watch whatever trailer had captured his fancy.

Michael was a great prankster. There’s a part of me that still thinks this is all just an elaborate prank he’s pulling on us, and he’s going to open his eyes one day and say, “Gotcha mom!” Perhaps it’s a measure of both how innocent and inadvertently dark Michael could be that such a prank could have seemed possible for at least a few moments.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Anne Carson’s Nox, the scrapbook meditation on translation and poetry on the occasion of her own brother’s death. It’s currently in my office, and I haven’t been there since I heard the news. Even if I had it, I don’t think I could get very far right now. I haven’t been able to read more than a few pages of anything, and Nox is more than I can handle right now. The structure of Nox is oriented around the process of translating Catullus 101 as a means of remembering her brother. Catullus 101 is itself a poem about the loss of a brother. Her translation reads:

Many the peoples many the oceans I crossed —
I arrive at these poor, brother, burials
so I could give you the last gift owed to death
and talk (why?) with mute ash.
Now that Fortune tore you from me, you
oh poor (wrongly) brother (wrongly) taken from me,
now still anyway this — what a distant mood of parents
handed down as the sad gift for burials —
accept! Soaked with tears of a brother
and into forever, brother, farewell and farewell.

I hadn’t remembered until I was googling for her translation that her own brother was named Michael.

In remembering Michael, I think about all the great things we shared, and the things he won’t be here to share in the future. His time with us was too short, but wonderful for all that. I miss him so much, and it’s an absence I know I’ll feel every day for the rest of my life.

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Masculinity in a Fun-house Mirror

I take a lot of pleasure in distorted/distorting reflective surfaces. The fun-house mirror is maybe the closest example of a reflective surface that distorts on purpose, but what I really enjoy is a good bit of metal encountered in the wild, which serves some more quotidian purpose, whose reflective properties seem more incidental. They catch you unawares, in unlikely places. Restaurants, airports, bus-stops. It doesn’t especially matter where you find them. You’re struck by an awareness of an image both yours and not. There’s a mouth I know, and maybe the hair too, but the eyes are stretched until they seem a foot long. I like that moving a few inches changes the image so radically, a slight shift in perspective yielding new distortions. It becomes a contemplative activity. The ability of light to reflect and refract in ways that depend on the medium doing the reflecting and refracting does a lot to give the lie to the supposed objectivity of our senses. It’s pretty easy to test for yourself. Visit your local pool or stream or fill your tub up with water and stick your arm in it. You know that your arm is straight, or maybe curved slightly, but now it seems to be going off at a rather pronounced angle.

I was prompted to reflect on reflection (and refraction) by the disconcerting revelation that Allen Frantzen has up on his website a series of essays about being a man that are summed up by three words: grab your balls. Lest anyone think I am simplifying his message about what it means to be a man, in his own words, Frantzen writes:

Like boxers, masculine men have to compete. … Or, as I put it every day, in three words: Grab your balls. Hereafter, GYB. These letters can also stand for “got your back,” but–in life–a man can have your back only if you have your balls, which is to say only if your life and your manhood are in your hands, not those of your wife or husband or girlfriend(s) or boyfriend(s).

For the most part, Frantzen’s website is virtually indistinguishable from 90% of the Men’s Rights blather that exists on the internet, even going so far as to adopt the Red Pill/Blue Pill language that is the trademark of some of the most toxic masculinity-first corners of the web. Why does this even matter? And why does it matter to me particularly? Because Frantzen is arguably the most important forerunner to the type of early medieval studies that I, and many other people of all genders, practice.

Frantzen was one of the first and most important voices to talk about same-sex desire in Anglo-Saxon England, and to talk about the importance of talking same-sex desire. He was at the forefront of a movement to bring theoretically savvy voices into a field (Anglo-Saxon studies) that was rigorously and rigidly philological and historical in scholarly practice and reactionary in politics. In Eileen Joy’s “Goodbye to All That: The State of My Own Personal Field of Schizoid Anglo-Saxon Studies,” Frantzen’s is the voice calling for a more inclusive, more exploratory Anglo-Saxon Studies:

Who, we asked ourselves, when gathering together the table of contents, would represent the younger generation most influenced by Frantzen’s call, in Desire for Origins, to develop a Beowulf studies that would “seek” its future “outside the Department of English and outside the rigid limits of language study, literary criticism, and history that contain them.”

It is distressing for young, theory-savvy Anglo-Saxonists to see Allen Frantzen behaving like a reactionary crank because we are conscious of the fact that our field has room for us because Frantzen was one of the people who fought for our place in the field in the 90s. We’ve read his Desire for Origins and Before the Closet, and assigned chapters from them to our students. For that matter, my theory class this semester is reading a chapter from Desire for Origins. It is doubly distressing because while Frantzen has a big name in Anglo-Saxon studies, he is not necessarily well-known outside of it (unless you study same-sex desire), and so we see our late-medieval colleagues dismissing his toxicity without any awareness of how important he was/is to the field. Frantzen has also been one of the most influential trainers of Anglo-Saxonists, people who are doing/have done exciting work on gender (Mary Dockray-Miller), digital humanities (Martin Foys), and ethnicity (Stephen Harris).

Of course, this trajectory didn’t come out of nowhere, and if it has become especially toxic in recent years, there were hints of it much earlier. His 1993 essay “When Women Aren’t Enough,” which appeared in a special issue of Speculum devoted to Studying Medieval Women: Sex, Gender, and Feminism, begins with these ruminations about his chosen title:

When I chose the title for this essay, I did not know that I was to be the volume’s only male contributor. As the token man, with no desire to speak for all men (many of whom would not choose me for the role in any case), I fear that I speak for them nevertheless. If women aren’t enough, for this volume or for feminist criticism, one essay by one man isn’t enough to explain why.

Of course, you don’t have to search very far back in the Speculum archives to see that the situation is more often reversed. The previous issue contains a grand total of no articles by women, and the issue before that only contains one.

One of the weirdest things about Frantzen’s essays about men now up is how stupid they are at times. It would be regrettable if he were only arguing for a premise I vehemently disagree with if it seemed like there was actually some argument behind it, but he seems to be inhabiting a fantasy world where women irrationally hate and want to destroy men for being men. In the essay entitled “How to Fight Your Way Out of the Feminist Fog,” he actually says the following:

Men are expected to give up safe places for women in emergencies, for example. Why? The survival rate for wealthy men on the Titanic (which sank in 1912) was 34%. The survival rate for the poorest women was 46%. Lifeboats left the ship with empty seats because men would not take them. The men who died, as Baumeister says, “were the patriarchs” (p. 163). These were the same kinds of men who would vote to extend voting rights to women (or did you think that women did that for themselves?).

That last sentence is just so bizarre. The Titanic sank on its way from Southampton to New York City in 1912. The 19th Amendment wasn’t ratified in the US until 1920. In the UK the Representation of the People Act 1918 gave some women the right to vote, but they wouldn’t get equal voting rights until 1928, and women like Emmeline Pankhurst had a hell of a lot more to do with it than the men who died on the Titanic, whose views on women’s suffrage I’m not going to speculate about. And that little parenthetical aside, so snide, insinuating as it does that suffrage was a benevolent gift from men to women. But it wasn’t. Denying the right to vote wasn’t some oversight that was swiftly corrected by the (masculine) powers that be as soon as it was pointed out to them, and equality wasn’t given to women by men.

What bothers me the most about Frantzen’s screeds is how toxic they are for any man who would take them seriously. He reads like someone who has mistaken a distorted image of masculinity in a fun-house mirror for the real thing. There’s not one way to be a man, any more than there is one way to be a woman, and oh my god why are we talking so much about my balls?! The only time I grab my balls is when I’m washing them in the shower. Frantzen has more desire to police what it means to be a man than any feminist I’ve ever met, and it’s just plain dispiriting. I have no desire to box or shoot guns or participate in any violent sport. I do enjoy violent books and movies, and my friends who most enjoy violent movies are almost all women. I was invited to watch Hobo with a Shotgun by a female former professor, and the biggest Jason Statham fan I have ever met was a quiet woman who owned two French bulldogs named Dawson and Pearl. I’m a man who would rather read H.D. than watch football, much less play football (although I do watch college basketball with a near religious fervor). The more I read Frantzen’s essays, the more I’m reminded of the Office’s hilarious parody of men teaching other men how to be manly in the form of Dwight Schrute, whose relentless policing of masculinity is parodically summed up by Jim Halpert as “bears, beets, Battlestar Galactica.” For Frantzen, the list apparently is balls, boxing, Beowulf, and the only reason early medievalists care about any of this is because of the important things Frantzen has said about the third thing in that list.


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Literary Theory Reading Schedule (draft)

I’m so happy to report that next semester I’m teaching course in literary theory for undergraduates here at Highlands. There are lots of things to say about this, and perhaps I will try to say some of them over the coming days, but right now I just want to share my (draft) reading schedule for the course. Not shown on the schedule at the moment is Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, which we’ll be reading bits at a time. My tendency throughout has been to privilege theoretical texts that have current relevance rather than reading things simply because they were important at some point decades ago. I’m using Beowulf as the main primary text in the course, and there are a number of readings drawn throughout from The Postmodern Beowulf: A Critical Casebook (PMB) that we will be using to showcase how to apply theory. This reading list is very much a tentative schedule, and I will likely move things around a bit before the semester starts, but it feels good to have a map.

Jan. 18th: MLK Day

Jan. 20th: Introduction


Jan. 25th: Bachelard, “The House. From Cellar to Garret. The Significance of the Hut.” from The Poetics of Space, 3–37.

Jan. 27th: Bennett, “The Force of Things” and “Edible Matter,” from Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, 1–19 and 39–51.


Feb. 1st: Chen, “Language and Mattering Humans,” from Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect, 23–55.

Feb. 3rd: Joy and Ramsey, “Introduction: Liquid Beowulf,” PMB xxix–lxvii.


Feb. 8th: Ingold, “Materials Against Materiality,” and “Against Space: Place, Movement, Knowledge,” from Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge, and Description, 19–32 and 145–55.

Feb. 10th: Lerer, “Hrothgar’s Hilt and the Reader in Beowulf,” PMB 587–628.


Feb. 15th: Cohen, “Introduction: Ecology’s Rainbow,” and Alaimo, “Violet-Black,” from Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green, xv–xxxv and 233–51.

Feb. 17th: Siewers, “Landscapes of Conversion: Guthlac’s Mound and Grendel’s Mere as Expressions of Anglo-Saxon Nation Building,” PMB 199–257.


Feb. 22nd: Foucault, “What Is an Author,” PMB 501–19.

Feb. 24th: Pasternack, “The Textuality of Old English Poetry,” PMB 519–46.


Feb. 29th: Derrida, “The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing,” from Of Grammatology, 6–26.

Mar. 2nd: Overing, “Swords and Signs: Dynamic Semeiosis in Beowulf,” PMB 547–86.


Mar. 7th: Deleuze and Guattari, “Introduction: Rhizome,” from A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 3–25.

Mar. 9th: Earl, “Beowulf and the Origins of Civilization,” PMB 259–86.





Mar. 21st: Levine, “Introduction: The Affordances of Form” and “Whole,” from Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, 1–48.

Mar. 23rd: Howe, “Beowulf and the Ancestral Homeland,” PMB 49–91.


Mar. 28th: Said, “The World, the Text, and the Critic,” PMB 1–24.

Mar. 30th: Frantzen, “Writing the Unreadable Beowulf,” PMB 91–130.


Apr. 4th: Benjamin,“The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” 19–55.

Apr. 6th: Clover, “Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe,” PMB 383–416.


Apr. 11th: Butler, “Introduction: Acting in Concert” and “Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy,” from Undoing Gender, 1–39.

Apr. 13th: Lees, “Men and Beowulf,” PMB 417–38.


Apr. 18th: Freeman, “Time Binds, or, Erotohistoriography,” from Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, 95–135.

Apr. 20th: Thormann, “Enjoyment of Violence and Desire for History in Beowulf,” PMB 287–318.


Apr. 25th: Ngai, “Envy,” from Ugly Feelings, 126–73.

Apr. 27th: Horner, “Voices from the Margins: Women and Textual Enclosure in Beowulf,” 467–500.


May 2nd: Bourdieu, “The Field of Cultural Production, or: The Economic World Reversed,” from The Field of Cultural Production, 29–73.

May 4th: Conferences


May 9th: FINAL PRESENTATIONS 8:00–10:30

Alaimo, Stacy. “Violet-Black.” Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green. Ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Minneapolis, MN, and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 233–51. Print.

Bachelard, Gaston. “The House. From Cellar to Garret. The Significance of the Hut.” The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994. 3–37. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility: Second Version.” The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media. Ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin. Cambridge, MA, and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008. 19–55. Print.

Bennett, Jane. “The Force of Things” and “Edible Matter.” Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2010. 1–19 and 39–51. Print.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Field of Cultural Production, or: The Economic World Reversed.” The Field of Cultural Production. Ed. Randal Johnson. Trans. Richard Nice. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. 29–73. Print.

Butler, Judith. “Introduction: Acting in Concert” and “Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy.” Undoing Gender. New York and London: Routledge, 2004. 1–39. Print.

Chen, Mel Y. “Language and Mattering Humans.” Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2012. 23–55 and 240–3. Print.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, ed. “Introduction: Ecology’s Rainbow.” Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green. Minneapolis, MN, and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. xv–xxxv. Print.

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. “Introduction: Rhizome.” A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis, MN, and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. 3–25. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. “The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing.” Of Grammatology. Corrected Edition. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore, MD, and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. 6–26. Print.

Freeman, Elizabeth. “Time Binds, or, Erotohistoriography.” Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2010. 95–135 and 187–9. Print.

Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 2000. Print.

Ingold, Tim. “Materials Against Materiality” and “Against Space: Place, Movement, Knowledge.” Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge, and Description. London and New York: Routledge, 2011. 19–32 and 145–55. Print.

Joy, Eileen A., and Mary K. Ramsey, ed. The Postmodern Beowulf: A Critical Casebook. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2006. Print.

Levine, Caroline. “Introduction: The Affordances of Form” and “Whole.” Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015. 1–48. Print.

Ngai, Sianne. “Envy.” Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2005. 126–73. Print.

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Stylistics lesson (meter and onomatopoeia)

I’m teaching stylistics for the first time, which has been quite the adventure. To be quite honest, when I first saw the job posting for Highlands, I wasn’t really sure what stylistics was (rigorous readings of texts informed by issues in linguistics), but when I started researching it I quickly realized that it was a fair description of most of the work I did in my dissertation, although maybe not always as rigorously as is the norm in stylistics. Teaching the class now has been an adventure in figuring out how to adapt my methods for reading medieval texts into accessible ways of thinking about all texts. I’m not sure that I’m constantly succeeding, but I felt really happy with yesterday’s class.

Last week I very quickly introduced my students to some key vocabulary for understanding meter, and then as homework they were to scan at least five poems on the great site For Better For Verse and come to class prepared to discuss any issues they had. In class I projected the site up on the smart board and we spent an hour going through the poems they looked at and talking about the issues they had. I think it’s safe to say that they found scansion to be frustrating at times, but it seemed like they also learned a lot about it.

As the next activity I gave them an altered version of one of e.e. cummings’s poems. I altered it by removing all capital letters, punctuation, and line breaks, and then they had to go through and repunctuate and relineate the whole thing. Then I passed out copies of the actual poem and we discussed how different decisions could affect the interpretation of the poem, why certain patterns led to different people converging on one result and others led to very divergent decisions.

Then I yammered some about how much I love Gerard Manley Hopkins and in particular his poem Pied Beauty. This was meant to be a larger discussion but I was running out of time so I just ended up gushing about how awesome the language is, how the alliteration and assonance feels in your mouth. I should probably just make them discuss it in every class. Screw everything else! We’re just talking about Hopkins from here to the end of the semester baby! But no. I must be responsible.

Kind of, because then we discussed onomatopoeia, which we began by parsing James Joyce’s infamous “Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!” We analyzed how we could break it up into different kinds of units and worked our way up to saying the whole thing in one fell swoop, and they did a great job at it. Our one linguistics grad student kept racing her way through it, much to the others’ chagrin, but everybody did pretty well with it.

This then led into our larger discussion of onomatopoeia. As another part of their homework, students were to collect at least ten instances of onomatopoeia and look them up in the OED or other sources, so we talked about the words they found, and I shared things about the words that I collected from my facebook friends the day of class (including words that were entirely new to me, like parp and borborygm, and others that were very familiar like strum.

We talked some about the difference between lexical and nonlexical onomatopoeia, but I felt like James Joyce was skewing the discussion too much, so I asked them to pull out a piece of paper and pencil and write down exactly what I said. Into the gaping silence, I stuck out my tongue and blew a raspberry. “Can you repeat that one more time,” one student quipped. They all wrote down their responses and then put them up on the board:


And then we were really able to talk about the difference between words and sounds and the mimetic function of language and how we use context to hear the sounds of non-lexical onomatopoeia rather than parsing individual letters.

In all, I thought it was a great class, probably my best stylistics class this semester, so I wanted to share it. I’ve also been struggling with keeping up with the blog, in part under the weight of feeling like I should say big important things, but little things are important too, small successes (and small failures).

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My path through Kalamazoo

Here I sit in the Albuquerque Sunport on my way to Michigan. Kalamazoo is probably my favorite conference. It’s big, it’s unabashedly medieval, it’s a great place to meet new people and reconnect with old. I’ve been going to Kalamazoo for years, and it never fails to be intellectually stimulating and incredibly fun. Going to Kalamazoo also requires making a lot of hard choices, especially if you’re an Anglo-Saxonist. What follows is my tentative plan, but it’s subject to change at whim. If you’re looking for me, these sessions are a solid bet. Are there exciting sessions I’ve missed out on?

Thursday 10:00: Bede’s Royalty with Stephen Harris and Sarah Foot (!)

Thursday 1:30: I’m torn! Either Interiority in Old English Prose and Poetry or Manuscript Context for Early Anglo-Saxon, Caroline, and Germanic Verse

Thursday 3:30: Alfredian Texts and Contexts with Joe Wingenbach, Stephanie Clark, and Hilary Fox

Thursday 7:30: Revisiting Remediation with Angela Bennett Segler, Kevin Caliendo, and me

Friday 10:00: Science, Nature, and Geography in the British Isles and Scandinavia in the Middle Ages with Eleanor Barraclough, Megan Cavell, and Helen Foxhall Forbes

Friday 1:30: In Honor of Toni Healey I: Wordcraft: Anglo-Saxon Studies after the Dictionary of Old English with Rob Getz, Cameron Laird, and Joyce Hill

Friday 3:30: In Honor of Toni Healey II: Old English Language and Literature with Eric Weiskott, Damian Fleming, Drew Jones, and Paul Szarmach

Saturday 10:00 The Vercelli Book: Accessing Vernacularity in the Tenth Century with Catherine Karkov, Rebecca Hardie, and Manish Sharma

Saturday 1:30 Unsettled Marks: To #:()@?”*!…and Beyond! A Roundtable with the Grammar Rabble Gang

Saturday 3:30 New Voices in Anglo-Saxon Studies II with Anthony Mansfield, Katayoun Torabi, and Dylan Wilkerson

Sunday 10:00 Anglo Saxon Studies Now (A Panel Discussion)

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Middle English Dictionaries Scavenger Hunt

I love dictionaries. This is probably fairly common among people who study dead languages and teach courses like History of the English Language. I try to introduce students to dictionaries throughout my teaching, but historical dictionaries can be a very unfamiliar beast to people for whom dictionaries serve the simple function of defining modern words. One of the things that helps, I think, is to introduce students to dictionaries with small tasks. As we move into Middle English in HEL, I have created something of a scavenger hunt that breaks dictionary searching tasks down into smaller bits. It’s a work in progress, and feedback from my current students will shape changes that I make for next year, but I’d love to get some suggestions from people who are actual scholars of Middle English. What am I missing? What challenges do you face in using the MED and the OED? Are there cool features that I’m missing out on? Are there words with especially fascinating entries?

Here is my scavenger hunt, as it currently stands (minus the spaces I left for students to write in answers, as the formatting does not translate especially well to the internet:

Middle English Scavenger Hunt for the MED and OED

MED: (free to access anywhere)

OED: (easy access on campus, need to login through the library off campus)

To begin with, let’s simply look up a relatively common word: lord.

What are some examples of Middle English spellings of Lord in the OED?

What changes have occurred in the word lord between the 1175 Cotton Homilies and the 1325 (for 1250) Genesis and Exodus (see quotations for sense I.1).

In the MED, you can search for lord by either doing a lookup or doing a Boolean search, which will search the entire text of the dictionary (under search the MED entries).

When you do a Boolean search for lord, how many total results are there?

In the basic lookup, you can use * as a way to search for wildcards, which is especially useful if you don’t know the exact spelling/ending of a word, but it can also be a great way to find compounds.

Use the basic lookup and type *lord to obtain results that end in –lord. What three compounds appear as results?

Use the basic lookup and type lord* to obtain results that begin with lord-. What are some of the results obtained from this kind of search?

Do you get any different results by looking up *lord*? What are they?

In the MED entry for lord, sense 7c gives “In not so pious interjections or exclamations”. Read the quotations and pick your favorite example of a not so pious interjection with lord.

Next let’s consider the word turd.

What medieval spellings does the OED give for turd?

How many results do you get in the MED with a simple lookup for turd?

One of the most common uses of the * at the end of words is to allow for variant endings. Use the list of spellings from the OED and the * to play around with different ways of doing headword lookups. What search do you find most effective?

Now let’s try a Boolean search for turd. How many entries do you get?

Back to the OED. Let’s play around a bit with the advanced search, which should be a link immediately below the search box.

Use the drop-down menu to change the search from Full Text to First Quotation.

Do a First Quotation search for Chaucer. How many results do you obtain where Chaucer is listed as the first quotation? How about Langland? Margery Kempe?

Go back to advanced search and switch to Quotation Author. How many results do you obtain for Chaucer? Langland? Margery Kempe?

What accounts for the differences in the two types of searches?

Back to the advanced search screen, change the search to Language.

Do a language search for Norse. How many results do you get?

At the top of the search results, click on the option that allows you to view the results as a timeline. This sorts the entries based on first appearance of the word. This can give a sense of when loanwords enter English, but you have to be somewhat careful, as we will see in a moment.

The largest bar in the timeline is for 1049 and before. Click on it to view the results for that time period. Examine the etymology section for some of these words (answer is a good starting point). Is there anything that explains the large numbers of pre-1049 words?

Why would you not call the pre-1049 results loanwords?

Go back to the timeline for Norse words. Other than the pre-1049 words, what is the next major time interval for the appearance of Norse words?

Click on it. If you picked the right interval, the fourth result should be anger. How does the etymology section for anger differ from the etymology section for answer?

Now let’s try French. Go back to advanced search and do a language search for French.

Whoa! How many results are there?

Which medieval (pre-1500) period sees the greatest influx of French words?

That’s enough of the OED. Let’s go back to the MED. One of the benefits of doing wildcard searches is that it allows you to search for individual morphemes in words. For example, the word parliament entered written English from Anglo-Norman circa 1300 (you can check it with the OED). This might cause you to wonder what other –ment words entered Middle English.

Go to the lookup page in the MED, and do a headword search for *ment. How many results are there?

Click on the result for adubbement. What poem is given as the source for all three quotations?

That’s probably enough for now. Hopefully you have a much better sense of your way around these dictionaries. If you have any questions, please ask me, whether in class, in office hours, or over e-mail.

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