October 3rd, 2020

saxon cross

Musing on the word "lord"

Our English word "lord" derives from Old English hlaford. Hlaford is a worn-down form of hlaf, "loaf (of bread)" and weard, "ward(en), someone responsible for something." The picture this brings to mind is of the master of the estate who deals out bread to the workers. ("Lady" comes from hlæfdige, "the one who kneads (digs) the bread." So the mistress bakes the bread, and the master hands it out.) One finds the word hlaford in religious contexts, but the more usual appellation for God in OE is Drihten, which connotes a military commander. Christ is usually referred to as se Hælend, "the Savior, One who makes whole."

Words mean what they mean, of course, but the images they call to mind subtly shape our understanding of their official meaning. Latin dominus is the master of a household, the paterfamilias. The root of Greek kurios means "strong," and implies the ability to break down resistance, not the right to obedience. It might best be translated, "Boss." Hebrew Adonai is an exclusively divine title, though its cognates in other languages can mean a secular ruler. Aramaic Mari is preserved in the ancient town name and in other contexts, such as the ruler of a city. Marana tha! means, "Our lord, come!" and shows how Jews using Aramaic employed the word as a direct translation of Adonai.

Unfortunately, 21st Century Americans are most likely to meet the term "lord" only in disambiguated religious contexts or in its debased meaning of a British aristocrat. But in its fulness, the word we are using is part of a family of meanings which shade into each other: God of Israel, Master, Giver of Daily Bread, Head of the Household, Ruler of the City of God, Commander, Healer of my Soul.

What's a cubit?

I was reading along in Genesis 6 in Old English: the story of Noah. And when I got to God's directions to Noah about the ark, I stopped short and boggled. There, in plain (Old) English, the dimensions were given as 300 x 50 x 30 fæðma. Not cubits, fathoms. Assuming standard cubits and fathoms, that would mean the ark was 4 times longer, 4 times wider, and 4 times higher than the Hebrew text says; in other words, 64 times larger than it should be.

Immediately I thought, What am I missing? I looked up cubits in a reliable Bible Dictionary. The standard builder's cubit in the Bible is about 17.5 inches long. Okay, how was that translated into Latin, from which the Anglo-Saxons would have derived their text? The Vulgate says, cubitorum. So, Jerome knew how to translate the term. Then what did the Anglo-Saxons mean by a fæðm?

OE fæðm means "outstretched arms, embrace," etc. It is equivalent to the ancient Greek orguia, which also means "outstretched." While not an exact measurement, it was usually considered to be about six feet.

Now, the OE translators consistently use fæðm to translate cubitus. Can it be that they're just saying "300 x 50 x 30 something-or-others"? Was the fathom the only unit of measurement they could find in OE to use? Or did they not know how much a cubit was? Had that knowledge been lost by the time the monks began translating into OE? Did they have to constantly remind their hearers that "fathom" didn't mean fathom as they were used to thinking, but rather a smaller unit? Or did they actually mean to convey the idea that the ark was larger than the biggest supertanker afloat today?

We wonders, aye, we wonders.