Old English Terms of the Body

It’s undeniable that people in Heathendom like to learn earlier stages of Germanic languages. Typically in the Anglosphere this is Old Norse because of Ásatrú, but outliers do exist. Most, however, want to learn just religious terms, even if that is only a tiny percentage of the overall language. So let’s be contrary and learn about the body in Old English.

The art of medicine is lǣcecræft (masculine). A lǣce (masculine) is a doctor or a physician; a lǣce is also a leech, which was likely assimilated into the first set of meanings by popular etymology. Lācnian is to heal, treat, or cure, while hǣlan is to heal. Doing so probably requires lācnung (“medicine”, feminine), which is possibly a sealf (“salve”, feminine), but all of this might cost lǣcefeoh (“physician’s fee”, neuter). Just be careful of an unlǣce (“unskilled physician”, masculine).

Let’s go over the body now.

The External Body

Anterior view of human female and male with labels. Click for a larger version.

You may notice immediately that some parts of the body have quite a few synonyms. In fact, several other parts, especially the fingers, have synonyms that did not fit into the image.

Here’s the complete list with translations in order to prevent ambiguity:

  • hēafod (neuter) “head”
  • hnecca (masculine) “neck”
  • earm (masculine) “arm”
  • þēoh (neuter) “thigh”
  • sceanca (masculine) “lower leg, shank”
  • hǣr (neuter) “hair”
  • ēare (neuter) “ear”
  • ceafl (masculine) “jaw”
  • sculdor (masculine) and eaxl (feminine) “shoulder”
  • (fore)brēost (all genders) “chest”
  • brēost (all genders) “breast”, which may serve as the same as the above word
  • titt (masculine) and delu (feminine) “nipple”
  • wamb (feminine), maga (masculine), būc (masculine), and hrif (neuter) “belly, stomach”
  • middel (masculine/neuter) and *wǣst (masculine?) “waist”
  • hype (masculine) “hip”
  • hand (feminine) “hand”
    • þūma (masculine) “thumb”
    • folm (feminine) “palm”
    • scytefinger (masculine) “forefinger, index finger”
    • middelfinger (masculine) “middle finger”
    • hringfinger (masculine) “ring finger”
    • ēarefinger (masculine) “pinkie”
  • gecyndlimu (neuter plural) “genitals”
    • mægþblæd (neuter) “vulva”
    • pintel (masculine) and teors (masculine) “penis”
    • herþbelg (masculine) “scrotum”
  • cnēo (neuter) “knee”
  • scinu (feminine) “shin”
  • anclēow (feminine) “ankle”
  • fōt (masculine) “foot”
  • (feminine) “toe”
  • ansīen (neuter/feminine), andwlita (masculine), nebb (neuter), and hlēor (neuter) “face”
    • forehēafod (neuter), hnifol (masculine), and steorn (feminine) “forehead”
    • ēage (neuter) “eye”
    • nosu (feminine) “nose”
    • cēace (feminine) “cheek”
    • mūþ (masculine) “mouth”
    • cinn (neuter) “chin”
  • elnboga (masculine) “elbow”
  • nafela (masculine) “navel”
  • wrist (feminine) “wrist”

Not included in the picture are such words as:

  • bæc (neuter) “back”
  • sceanclīra (masculine), scotlīra (masculine), spearlīra (masculine), and spearwa (masculine) “calf”
  • lēow (neuter) “thigh”
  • ears (masculine) “ass, buttocks”
  • hēla (masculine) “heel”
  • earsgang (masculine), earsþyrel (neuter), and ūtgang (masculine) “anus”
  • ōxn (feminine) and ōcusta (masculine) “armpit”
  • nægl (masculine) “nail”
  • bōsm (masculine) “bosom, chest”
  • þrotu or þrote (feminine) “throat”
  • lim (neuter) “limb”
  • heals (masculine) “neck”
  • ǣcern (neuter) “acorn, mast; glans”
  • filmen (neuter) “membrane; caul; foreskin”

Organs

Human male with organs labelled. Click for a larger version.

The insides of the body are relatively easy to document, although some terms are missing.

  • lifer (feminine) “liver”
  • *geallablǣdre (feminine) “gallbladder”, reconstruction based on the current word and cognates with other Germanic languages
  • milte (masculine/feminine) “spleen, milt”
  • maga (masculine) and būc (masculine) “stomach”
  • þearmas (masculine plural) “intestines”
  • blǣdre (feminine) “bladder”
  • *neora (masculine) “kidney”
  • līra (masculine) “muscle”
  • brægen (neuter) “brain”
  • lungen (feminine) “lung”
  • mearg (masculine/neuter) “marrow”
  • ǣdre (feminine) “blood vessel”

Not pictured are:

  • gēotend (masculine) — “artery”
  • hēafodǣdre (feminine) — “cephalic vein”
  • rægerēose (feminine) — “spinal muscles”
  • midhrif (masculine/neuter) — “diaphragm”
  • midhriþre (neuter) — “diaphragm”
  • ropp (masculine) “large intestine”
  • smælþearmas (masculine plural) “small intestines”
  • smælþearme (neuter) “lower abdomen”
  • *endeþearm (masculine) — “rectum”, reconstruction based on cognates with other Germanic languages
  • bealluc (masculine) “testicle”
  • hærn (masculine) “brain”

Conclusion

This gives a good start for anyone who is interested in learning the body in Old English. As with any older stage of a language, some terms may be imprecise in our opinion, but this is an issue simply of dialectal variation or context clues.

Some words had to be reconstructed. While I am very certain that I have just missed some by accident, others are less likely to be found. We should definitely have a term for a pancreas or skeleton, but perhaps it was never recorded in surviving texts. But the likelihood of having a term for lymph nodes is very low, which also proved impossible to translate due to its odd etymology.

All words are written in the West Saxon dialect. The two images are originally from Wikipedia and were released under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication. If you are aware of any mistakes or can fill in gaps, please contact me and I shall update the content of this post.

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