Wondrous blue

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I was led to this tweet after reading Henry Hitchings' review (WSJ [5/8/22]) of Hana Videen's The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English (11/11/21).  Hitchings explains that, since the fall of 2013, she has been writing one tweet per day about a single Old English word.  I estimate that by now Videen has accumulated well over three thousand words.  The number of words of Anglo-Saxon origin still in use today is roughly 4,500 (source), out of a total of 50,000 to 60,000 words in Old English.

I have my doubts about writing a book this way — supposedly composed of tweets that are 140 (280 after 2017) characters (or Unicode glyphs) long, especially for a subject so arcane and philological as Old English (but see below for her actual practice in the book).  Hitchings defends Videen's modus operandi thus:

I doubt that I’m alone in frowning at the proliferation of nonfiction that began life as burblings on social media, and there’s an undelightful subgenre of Twitterature consisting of volumes that merely pile up linguistic trivia. But Ms. Videen is both a passionate medievalist and a relaxed, lucid writer; the pleasure she takes in her subject is infectious.

The rest of the review is similarly enthusiastic in favor of Videen's project.  The review is both informative and entertaining.  Hitchings has extracted much exciting, stimulating material from Videen's book, including the importance of "kenning", which — much to my amusement — I had learned about in high school.  But I was curious about what her individual tweets looked like, so I started browsing through some of them.  Nearly all of the ones I looked caused my antennae to tingle.  After about the third or fourth, I came upon the one at the top of this post.

Hmmm, I wondered (!).  Why does she say that "wundor-blēo" means "a wondrous colour"?  Why not just call it "wondrous blue"?  Whether in Middle English, Old English, or Proto-Indo-European, I couldn't find evidence that "blue" and its roots ever meant "color" per se.

I like many of Videen's tweets, such as these:

#OldEnglish #WOTD: bōc-cræft, m.n: book-learning, learning, literature. (BOAK-KRAFT / ˈboːk-ˌkræft)
#OldEnglish #WOTD: rōt-hwīl, f.n: refreshing time. (ROAT-HWEEL / ˈroːt-ˌhwiːl) — VHM:  "glad / cheerful while"

Though we may wonder about some of her tweets, such as wundor-blēo, The Wordhord itself is much more expansive than the tiny tweets and usually ties things together more securely and satisfyingly.

Worth a read!


Selected readings

"Long words" (6/25/128)

"Mud season in Old English" (4/1/20)

[h.t. Mark Metcalf]


  1. CuConnacht said,

    May 9, 2022 @ 2:31 pm

    Blēo is defined in J Clark Hall's Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary as "color, hue" (and as used in King Alfred's translation of Pope Gregory's Pastoral Care as "appearance, form"); and wundorblēo as "marvelous hue".

  2. Victor Mair said,

    May 9, 2022 @ 4:36 pm

    Thank you, CuConnacht, for expanding my vision of "blue". I've now gone back and looked at the entry for bhel-1 in the American Heritage Dictionary of English Appendix of Indo-European roots.


    To shine, flash, burn; shining white and various bright colors.

    ▲ Derivatives include blue, bleach, blind, blond, blanket, black, flagrant, flame.
    I. Suffixed full-grade form *bhel-o-.
    1. a. beluga from Russian belyĭ, white; b. Beltane from Scottish Gaelic bealltainn, from Old Irish beltaine, "fire of Bel" (ten, tene, fire; see tep-) , from Bel, name of a pagan Irish deity akin to the Gaulish divine name Belenos, from Celtic *bel-o-.
    2. phalarope from Greek phalaros, having a white spot.
    3. phalaenopsis from Greek phallaina, moth (< *"white creature"). II. Extended root *bhleə1-, contracted to *bhlē-. 1. Suffixed form *bhlē-wo-. blue from Old French bleu, blue, from Germanic *blēwaz, blue. 2. Suffixed zero-grade form *bhl̥ə-wo-. flavescent, flavo-; flavin, flavone, flavoprotein from Latin flāvus, golden or reddish yellow. III. Various extended Germanic forms. 1. bleach from Old English blǣcan, to bleach, from Germanic *blaikjan, to make white. 2. bleak1 from Old Norse bleikr, shining, white, from Germanic *blaikaz, shining, white. 3. blitzkrieg from Old High German blëcchazzen, to flash, lighten, from Germanic *blikkatjan. 4. a. blaze1 from Old English blæse, torch, bright fire; b. blesbok from Middle Dutch bles, white spot; c. blemish from Old French ble(s)mir, to make pale. a-c all from Germanic *blas-, shining, white. 5. a. blind; blindfold, purblind from Old English blind, blind; b. blende from Old High German blentan, to blind, deceive; c. blend from Old Norse blanda, to mix; d. blond from Old French blond, blond. a-d all from Germanic *blendaz, clouded, and *bland-, *bland-ja-, to mix, mingle (< "make cloudy"). 6. a. blench1 from Old English blencan, to deceive; b. blanch, blank, blanket; blancmange, Pinot Blanc from Old French blanc, white. Both a and b from Germanic *blenk-, *blank-, to shine, dazzle, blind. 7. blush from Old English blyscan, to glow red, from Germanic *blisk-, to shine, burn. IV. Extended root *bhleg-, to shine, flash, burn. 1. O-grade form bhlog-. black from Old English blæc, black, from Germanic *blakaz, burned. 2. Zero-grade form *bhl̥g-. a. fulgent, fulgurate; effulgent, foudroyant, refulgent from Latin fulgēre, to flash, shine, and fulgur, lightning; b. fulminate from Latin fulmen (< *fulg-men), lightning, thunderbolt. 3. a. flagrant; conflagrant, conflagration, deflagrate from Latin flagrāre, to blaze; b. chamise, flambé, flambeau, flamboyant, flame, flamingo, flammable; inflame from Latin flamma (< *flag-ma), a flame. 4. phlegm, phlegmatic, Phlegethon from Greek phlegein, to burn. 5. O-grade form *bhlog-. phlogiston, phlox; phlogopite from Greek phlox, a flame, also a wallflower. [Pokorny 1. bhel- 118, bheleg- 124, bhleu-(k)- 159.]

  3. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 9, 2022 @ 6:43 pm

    For a quick tour of various blue pigments, try this overview, which includes some well-known art:


    That overview does not include this pigment, used for manuscript illumination:


    Dental plaque suggests a woman painted manuscripts with blue:


    This article makes a vocabulary claim: “ The only ancient culture to have a word for blue was the Egyptians, and they were also the only culture that had a way to produce a blue dye.”


    The Wikipedia article on blue is long, but it is a good overview. In regard to vocabulary, itt says: “Linguistic research indicates that languages do not begin by having a word for the colour blue.[8] Colour names often developed individually in natural languages, typically beginning with black and white (or dark and light), and then adding red, and only much later – usually as the last main category of colour accepted in a language – adding the colour blue, probably when blue pigments could be manufactured reliably in the culture using that language.[8]”


  4. Chester Draws said,

    May 9, 2022 @ 11:14 pm

    “ The only ancient culture to have a word for blue was the Egyptians, and they were also the only culture that had a way to produce a blue dye.”

    The Celts dyed with woad.

    India, China, Japan, etc had indigo from ages back.

    How many ancient cultures never talked about the sky? Or flowers or birds?

  5. maidhc said,

    May 9, 2022 @ 11:36 pm

    Stating that a particular language "has a word for blue" is problematic, because that assumes that colour words are based solely on hue, as in English. However, other languages may base colour words on saturation rather than hue.

    Looking at it from an Irish perspective, for example, you might say that English doesn't have a word for glas.

  6. bks said,

    May 10, 2022 @ 7:08 am

    Sacré bleu!

  7. ktschwarz said,

    May 10, 2022 @ 2:14 pm

    As CuConnacht noted, Old English blēo meant "color" or more generally "appearance", not "blue", and its modern descendant (now archaic or obsolete) is blee, not blue. The OED describes blee as "A purely poetical word in Middle English, which gradually became obsolete in the course of the 16th or early in the 17th cent. (not in Shakespeare); but being frequent in ballads and metrical romances, it has been used by one or two modern poets." (That entry is from 1887, and their example of a "modern" poet is Elizabeth Barrett Browning!) I suspect poets hung onto it because it's an easy rhyme. Wiktionary has examples of blee in poetry as late as 1931, and they're all rhymes.

    This Old English word *may* go back to the same Indo-European root as blue, but not all Indo-European references accept the relation.

    Modern English blue was a borrowing from Norman French, which in turn got it from Germanic. English doesn't seem to have a direct descendant of this Germanic root; it would have been blāw in Old English, but there's no clear evidence of it (see OED's updated entry on blue for detailed discussion). Its Scandinavian descendant was also borrowed into English as blae, but that now survives only in Scots.

    For further complication, Old English had a completely different color term that included blue in its range: hǣwen, origin unknown, surviving only as Scots haw. This was not an exact synonym of blue: it also included blue-green, blue-purple, grey-blue, grey-green. We don't generally expect color terms to be lost and replaced, but it does happen.

  8. ktschwarz said,

    May 10, 2022 @ 4:28 pm

    @Chester Draws: The claim about "the only culture that had a way to produce a blue dye" is of course stupid, but making a blue dye does not necessarily mean your language has a word that matches up to our blue. Often the dye just has its own name, and it is not abstracted or generalized to refer to other things like flowers or birds. See West African languages, for example.

    And, strange as it seems to us today, ancient cultures almost never applied a color term to the sky (clear midday sky, not the red of sunset or dawn). Not in Homer, not in the Bible, not in the Vedas. Homer described the sky as starry, broad, or great, or likened it to iron or copper or bronze, but he didn't use a color term.

    Required reading on this topic: Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher, and Kiwi Hellenist's post on ancient Greek color terms, which examines the few examples of ancient Greek texts that do use a color term for the sky (glaukos or lampros).

  9. Ronan Maye said,

    May 11, 2022 @ 12:31 am

    This reminds me of something I noticed in an Old English class: a lot of cognates with modern English are misleading (false-friends?) like the tweet above (i.e. blue referring to color). For example, the word midwife sounds in modern English like it refers to a woman who helps other women give birth but it just breaks down into "mid-wife" which just means "with-woman." Mid is a cognate of German "mit" for with, and "wife" just meant woman. Another one is how "mann" (man) referred to any person and not specifically males, while the word for a male person was "were" which we still have in "werewolf."

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    May 11, 2022 @ 6:06 am

    I do not understand, Ronan, why you suggest that "the word midwife sounds in modern English like it refers to a woman who helps other women give birth" — nothing in its spelling, pronunciation or any other aspect conveys to me the idea of "a woman who helps other women give birth", even thought it has now come to mean exactly that. I have always assumed that it comes from "mit wife", and therefore means someone/thing who is with a wife, but nothing in that postulated etymology suggests that the wife need be in the act of giving birth.

  11. Terpomo said,

    May 11, 2022 @ 3:24 pm

    I have to admit that while I appreciate the use case for it, I still find that fuh-NET-ik respelling eye-hurting.

  12. Terpomo said,

    May 11, 2022 @ 3:28 pm

    Though I will add, at least it's accompanied by IPA here.

  13. Terpomo said,

    May 11, 2022 @ 3:28 pm

    Though I will add, while it's eye-hurting at least it's accompanied by IPA here.

  14. Terpomo said,

    May 11, 2022 @ 3:29 pm

    Oops, didn't realize that my second comment had actually posted. Feel free to delete this comment and my second one.

  15. Ronan Maye said,

    May 11, 2022 @ 7:38 pm

    Hello Philip, I just meant that to someone who doesn't know the germanic roots of the word midwife (myself in the past) the "wife" half of "midwife" seems to refer to the one who is helping the mother give birth rather than the mother herself, and mid's meaning is not transparent to someone who hasn't studied German, Dutch, or Old English since it has been replaced by "with" in modern English. To most English speakers, mid sounds like "middle," so "midwife" just seems like it refers to a woman who is in the middle of something (perhaps the process of the birth), but this is misleading for two reasons: mid doesn't refer to middle and midwife it is not a gendered occupational term like actress, waitress, etc. It is just a non-gendered term for anyone that helps a mother during the birth. Once I learned the germanic roots of the word, its meaning subsequently seemed obvious. I have tested this out on some people who are not interested in languages or etymology and they assumed midwife referred specifically to women who help other women with the birthing process. Best regards

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 3:45 am

    Thank you, Ronan. I confess that I had never considered the possibility that the "mid" prefix might be "mid" as in (e.g.,) "midships", and although a native English speaker I have used German and Dutch "mit" so frequently that I failed to appreciate that others would be less familiar (or completely unfamiliar) with the fact that "mit" = "with". All is now clear.

  17. David Marjanović said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 1:31 pm

    (WUN-dor-BLAY-oh / ˈwʌn-dɔr-ˌbleːɔ)

    The FOOT/STRUT split is nowhere near that old, and never even became universal. We're obviously looking at [ʊ] here, not [ʌ].

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