Chaste Beowulf

Where is the earthy language in the English tongue’s greatest epic tale?

HUMANITIES, November/December 2009, Volume 30, Number 6

From Making Sense: Constructing Meaning in Early English, a selection of papers on Anglo-Saxon and other medieval texts edited by Antonette diPaolo Healey and Kevin Kiernan and published by Toronto-based Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies. In the following excerpt, scholar Roberta Frank, a member of the International Advisory Panel for the Dictionary of Old English, starts out her essay with lighthearted acknowledgment of the lack of earthy language in the English tongue’s greatest epic tale. The Beowulf poet, she goes on to show, valued understatement more than has been heretofore acknowledged. Antonette diPaolo Healey has received NEH support for work on the Dictionary of Old English.

Don’t blame the Dictionary of Old English if a certain four-letter word—the one that turned the flower named after Leonhard Fuchs into a “fuchsia”—is not among the 3,016 headwords in the new electronic f-fascicule. Still, its absence is bad news for the Toronto team: dirty words win friends and ward off customer complaints. What can an editor do when the basic English obscenities are missing from the corpus on which her dictionary is based? Should she advertize that the new fascicule contains more than a dozen polite words for the act of fornication alone? (It is hard, as the framers of the U.S. Congress Clean Airways Act recently discovered, to promote chasteness without naming its opposite.) Or should she tease her readers, as Angus McIntosh did in his 1960 essay entitled “A Four-Letter Word in ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’.” (It begins: “In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I have noted 293 instances of the verb know.”) But Beowulf is so innocent of country matters that even the common four-letter f-word feld “field,” with more than 375 occurrences in Old English, is missing. The revelation that the most frequent four-letter f-word in Beowulf is fela ‘many, much,’ is not the stuff that publicists’ dreams are made of.

© Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2007. Reprinted with permission.