How’s life, faithful readers? If you’ve been paying attention the past few months, you’ll have noticed a pattern in what we publish each week on Tuesday.
That’s right: it’s Fun Etymology time!
Today, we want to talk about hidden words.
Sometimes words hide inside other words, camouflaging their forms so that you have to know where to look to find them.
Such words are like the fairies of old: mischevious and adept at hiding from the mortals’ prying eyes. One such word is today’s word: “elf”.
Readers of Tolkien (and of fantasy in general) will surely be familiar with the image of the Nordic Elf, the elf as imagined by the people of ancient Scandinavia: beautiful, ethereal, and dangerous in some subtle way. In English and Celtic folklore, however, elves were a different beast altogether: short, ugly, and terribly mischevious if not even malicious.
The word “elf” goes back a long time: it comes unchanged from Old English, and has cousins in many other Germanic languages (such as German “Alp” and Old Norse “alfr”). Ultimately, it can be traced back to Proto-Germanic *albiz, but beyond that its origins are mysterious. One hypothesis is that it could come from Proto-Indo-European “*albho-“, meaning “white”.
Where does this word hide, you ask? Well, if any of you is called Alfred, Alvin, or (less likely) Eldridge, it’s right in your name!
In the Middle Ages, people believed that fairies and elves lay hidden around the world ready to snatch children and waylay adults, and had a fearful respect for such creatures. Many names still used today contain the word “elf”.
The three names I’ve just cited, for example, come from Old English “Ælfræd”, meaning “Elf-counsel”, “Ælfwine”, meaning “Elf-friend”, and “Ælfric”, meaning “Elf-ruler”, respectively.
Who knows what other mischevious words hide within our names? Can you find out?