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Hana Videen on her book 'The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English'


You know those word of the day apps to expand your vocabulary? Well, our next guest has an app highlighting words with a twist - like wrath-mod (ph), as in super angry, or lencten-adl (ph), as in spring disease. I mean, you know, look, these allergies have been killing me. And what about saying things are changing for the better? Just say wirp (ph). Hana Videen is the Old English Wordhord (ph). She fell under the language's spell studying "Beowulf" as an undergrad, then got her PhD in medieval English lit. And we reached out to her to learn a little bit more about this language. Hey, Hana.


RASCOE: So can you give us some context? What's the span of time covered by Old English, and what kind of texts use it?

VIDEEN: Sure. Yeah. Old English is the vernacular language that was used in England - what is now England - between around 550 to 1150. And most of the texts that we have are from around the 10th century or later, and they include all kinds of different things, from poetry to homilies or sermons to prose texts and medical texts - all kinds of things.

RASCOE: And so you've got a book out. It's called "The Wordhord." So give me an example of a favorite word that you have.

VIDEEN: Well, wordhord itself is a favorite word, and it sounds a bit like it's a dictionary or a thesaurus, but it wasn't a physical book. It was a poet's stockpile, mental stockpile, of words and phrases that they could draw upon when they were performing poetry. And I really like that idea, that you would keep these all in your head and take them out when you want to share them with others.

RASCOE: Often I find I don't have a very large wordhord, and that's part of the issue that...

VIDEEN: (Laughter).

RASCOE: ...That I face. And just like all language, there's a level of specificity with some of these that can be really beautiful. And one that spoke to us, because we do get up really, really early to think about the news and report it to everyone else, is a word that basically translates to pre-dawn anxiety. I'm going to try to pronounce it. Is it uht-cearu (ph)?

VIDEEN: It's uht-cearu (laughter).

RASCOE: Uht-cearu, OK - uht-cearu. Well, everyone who speaks Old English right now is yelling at the radio. Who was having this pre-dawn anxiety back in medieval times?

VIDEEN: Yeah. Uht-cearu actually appears in a poem, and it's called "The Wife's Lament." And it's about this woman who is - has for some reason been separated from her loved ones. And I think it's beautiful that it's connected to a particular time of day. I think that's something you can really relate to today even, even though there's not a word for it. Because - I don't know - I wake up at 3 in the morning and worry about things, and it's the perfect word to describe it.

RASCOE: Some of the words that we use today are actually the exact same as Old English. And I was surprised that snot...

VIDEEN: (Laughter).

RASCOE: ...Is one of them because I guess that's just universal. That has gone through time.

VIDEEN: Yeah, yeah. And I don't know. I find it really funny that a word that we don't have anymore is snotor (ph), which actually means wise. It's actually, like, a nice thing to call someone, is saying that they're snotor, but snot itself does not sound nice, so, yeah (laughter).

RASCOE: Of course, this is fun. And of course, you see how language changes. But, like, is there a bigger takeaway that you hope people will take out of this?

VIDEEN: What I think is really great about studying Old English is there's so many familiar words, but there're also really strange ones that have fallen out of existence. And once you start digging into both the familiar ones and the strange ones, you start to learn something about what life was like at the time for people. And I think it's really fascinating for any time period. Like the - in Old English, the word for enemy is unfreond (ph), so it's like unfriend. And today, unfriend has become a verb that we use for social media and stuff. But we don't talk about our unfriends (ph) anymore.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

VIDEEN: But it seems like it's an old word that would actually be quite relevant now.

RASCOE: Quite useful.

VIDEEN: Yes (laughter).

RASCOE: Hana Videen's book is "The Wordhord: Daily Life In Old English." Thank you so much for joining us.

VIDEEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Lennon Sherburne