We may not class a dictionary as a ‘fun read’. And apart from providing the standard spelling, ensuring it’s the right word for the meaning, and used in the right way, we may have no other use for it (except, perhaps, as a door-stop). Which is a shame, for a dictionary is invariably full of cultural references, especially when that dictionary deals not with current times but with an historical period.
The Gaelic-English Dictionary by Malcolm MacLennan (first published 1925) is a gem with telling details of life in the Highlands, Islands and Lowlands of Scotland, and etymology both Irish and Norse. And I wouldn’t be without the Dictionnaire International Français-Anglais by H. Hamilton & E. Legros (published in 1868 and available online via Google Books), an essential for anyone trying to decipher articles about Carolingian France—written in French. Yet my vote for the most information-crammed tome goes to An Icelandic-English Dictionary by Richard Cleasby and Gudbrand Vigfusson (published in 1874 and available online). To quote its own publicity, it is the most comprehensive and authoritative dictionary on Old Icelandic. But it doesn’t stop there.
The settlement of Iceland began around 874 with the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfur Arnarson. And he and subsequent migrants brought with them from Norway their Scandinavian culture. So in describing the culture of medieval Iceland, Cleasby and Vigfusson also tell of the ancient (specifically) Norse and (generally) Scandinavian way of life. And this can make for a fascinating read. Yea, truly.
Take for example the entry:- baugr, m.
There are seven definitions:
1: a ring or armlet, plain, without stones, as worn in ‘olden times’ on the wrist.
This has cognates in Anglo-Saxon (see the Boworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary online—the dictionary records the state of the English language as was used between ca. 700-1100 AD by the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of the British Isles’, to quote the site)
beág, bǽh, bég, béh; pl. beágas; m. [beáh, beág; p. of búgan to bend]
Metal made into circular ornaments, as a ring, bracelet, collar, garland, crown.
Bracelets worn about the arms and wrists; rings on the fingers, round the ankles, the neck, and about the head.
Se geonga gewát Eádgár of lífe, beorna beáhgifa …
… the young Edgar, ring-giver of men, departed from life…
[Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 975, Winchester Manuscript]
2: the sacred temple ring on the altar in heathen temples.
Oaths were made by laying the hand upon the temple ring. At sacrificial banquets the ring was dipped in blood. At meetings it was worn by the priest.
This sacred ring was either of gold or silver, described as ‘open’ (mótlaus), and weighed between two and twenty ounces.
baug-eiðr, m. the oath upon the sacred temple ring in heathen times
The heathen equivalent of the Christian laying of the hand upon the Bible.
As it says in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, year 876, Winchester Manuscript:
… & wiþ þone here se cyning friþ nam, & him þa aþas sworon on þam halgan beage… ‘… and the king made peace with the raiding party, and they swore oaths on the sacred ring…’
3: a spiral ring without a stone (e.g. a wedding ring)—or at least that was its usage in Iceland at the time of Cleasby & Vigfusson’s compilation (1874)
Oddly, the third finger was (still is?) called the baugfingr—as a translation of the Latin digitus annuli despite, we’re told, the wearing of wedding rings was not in use in Iceland, unless as a Danish imitation.
4: weregild, payment, money, used metaphorically.
Before the use of minted coins, lengths of gold and silver would be curled around to form spirals. Pieces then were cut off and weighed as and when required for payment.
bauga-brot, n. pl. cut-off pieces of baugr
Under the entry for beág, bǽh, in online Boworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon dictionary is the added comment that these rings, worn around wrist, arm, neck and head being valuable were probably used in early times as means of exchange or as money; hence the origin of ‘ring-money’.
Quite so. Exactly as Cleasby & Vigfusson says.
And hence in Old Icelandic baugr came to mean ‘money’; and in law, particularly the payment of weregild. Thus:
fjör-baugr, m. ‘life-money’
a fee amounting to a mark paid by a convict of the lesser degree to the executive court. If not paid, the convict would henceforth be a full outlaw.
baug-bót, f. compensation
baug-gildi, n weregild paid to the ‘agnates’ of the slain
bróðiir-baugr, m. weregild due to the brother
5: a painted circle on a round shield
Such an embellished shield, especiallywhen prinked with scenes from the mythical age, was (metaphorically) called baugr
6: a fish-hook
This has to come from its older meaning of ‘bowed’.
Although the Boworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon dictionary gives:
beáh, beág; p. of búgan to bend
búgan, to bow, to bend the body; to yield, give ground, give way
In Old Norse/Icelandic the sense is more of the pliability of an object (as with gold that can be bent into a spiral, and worn on the arm).
bogi, a, m. a bow; metaph. an arch, vault: the rainbow
himin-bogi the sky
blóð-bogi, a gush of blood
regn-bogi, a rainbow
öln-bogi, an elbow
boginn, adj., bent, bowed, curved
7: a chance
This is explained as a metaphor, but even then it is credited as ‘doubtful’.
All of which is all very good, but apart from rainbows, and bent low, baugr isn’t a particularly familiar word. More so is the Old Norse hringr, m., pl. hringar, which we know it as ring—as in Lord of the Rings.
Again, there are several, though related, meanings.
1: a ring, circle as in
dóm-hringr, m. doom-ring, judgment-ring
The doom-ring was a sacred area surrounding the court in pre-Christian times where no evil-doer might enter, and where no act of violence might be committed. The English term of ‘calling to the bar’ originates here. The bar in question was a pole of hazelwood. This sacred circle was formed by a ring of stones, called the dóm-steinar. One wonders if that was also the purpose of the Neolithic through Iron Age stone circles that litter the landscape of Western and Northern Europe.
2: the ring at the end of the hilt to which the friðbönd were fastened.
This needs explaining.
frið-bönd, n. pl. peace-bonds were straps wound round the sword’s scabbard or sheath and fastened to a ring in the hilt when the weapon was not in use. They ensured the sword wouldn’t be drawn in sudden anger.
3: the chain or links in a kettle chain
That’s not the kind of kettle that plugs into a socket. It’s more by way of a cauldron, such as would be suspended from chains above the centrally-placed hearth.
If we think of the Cauldron of Plenty that figures in the Welsh tale of Cerridwen (accidental mother of Taliesin, the poet of Cad Goddeu, Battle of Trees), we might understand better why Ketel was such a common name in England and Scandinavia (not a reference to his helmet!).
4: the rings in a coat of mail
hringa-brynja, u, f.. a coat of ring-mail
hring-kofl, m., hring-skyrta, u, f., hring-serkr, m. a shirt of rings
hring-ofin, adj. woven with rings i.e. a coat of mail
5: a ring on the arm or finger
a gold ring, gull-hringa; a silver ring, silfr-hringa; an iron ring, járn-hringa
6: a proper name of a man
The most famous ‘Hring’ was Sigurd Hring fl 750 CE, a Swedish and Danish king mentioned in many of the Scandinavian legends. According to Icelandic sources and the Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus he was the father of Ragnar Lodbrok.
Hring was son of Swedish king Ingjald (Ingild)
And maternal nephew of Danish king Harald Wartooth.
By these definitions it would seem that the baugr-type ring was made by bending some malleable substance, be it gold or rope or, say, wood for a bow. While the more common ring was . . . well, more solid, secure. Strong. Hence:-
mann-hringr a ring of men
But wait a minute. What of this:_
hringa sik to coil oneself, said of a serpent
Doom-rings and peace-bonds are suggestive of an entirely different society to that portrayed by the Viking Sagas. And the cut-off pieces of gold that served as money, both for the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse/Danes, hint at a shared culture that possibly pre-dates the settlement of England. So . . .
Dictionaries: better than your average door-stop. every entry hints at a story.