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King Arthur (middle) is depicted fighting Saxons on horseback in an illustration contained in the Rochefoucauld Grail, in a recent undated photo released in London. (HO/Reuters)
King Arthur (middle) is depicted fighting Saxons on horseback in an illustration contained in the Rochefoucauld Grail, in a recent undated photo released in London. (HO/Reuters)

Warren Clements

Anglo-Saxons and hand-saex Add to ...

As an invitation to explore the wonders of Old English, hand-saex is certainly arresting.

The Dictionary of Old English, based at the University of Toronto (doe.utoronto.ca), offered hand-saex as last week’s “word of the week.” Reader Susannah Cameron spotted it and sent the reference to Word Play. “Have to admit it caught my attention,” she said.

More from Warren Clements

Sadly for anyone expecting new insight into the intimate practices of Anglo-Saxons between the years 600 and 1150, the word refers to a knife or dagger. The knife was a saex, also spelled seax and (yes) sex, and a hand-saex was a weapon held in one hand. The word for hand in Old English was hand. Very handy.

Saex comes from a Germanic root ( sah or sag) meaning to cut. It survives today only in the narrowly defined word sax, a tool used to trim roofing slates. But before the Norman Conquest of 1066 reshaped the English language and gave us Middle English – a process that took about a century to filter down to ordinary folks – saex was all the rage.

There is even speculation that the Saxons, the Germanic invaders known once in England as Anglo-Saxons, got their name from the knives they carried. After all, the Old English spelling of Saxon was Seaxan (and Seaxe in the plural).

The saex played a significant role in Beowulf, the epic poem written in Old English in the eighth century or thereabouts. After the warrior Beowulf has mortally wounded the monster Grendel, and after everyone has sung For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow or the Old English equivalent thereof, Grendel’s mother comes seeking vengeance. She pulls Beowulf into the watery depths “ ond hyre seax geteah, brad, brun-ecg” – which Seamus Heaney translates as “and pulled out a broad, whetted knife.”

(I can hear the high-pitched voice of Bluebottle, a character in the old British radio program The Goon Show, insisting that of course the knife was wetted; it was underwater. For the record, wet derives from Scandinavian sources and whet from Germanic sources.)

Since the Dictionary of Old English’s teaser defined hand-saex as a dagger, it is worth noting that dagger, which entered Middle English by 1375, seems to have been dreamed up by the English themselves, without reference to other languages. Daggarius does appear in medieval Latin, but the Latin word evidently came from English rather than vice versa.

Should anyone be wondering, sex (as in male and female) comes from the classical Latin sexus, the state of being male or female, and is first found in English in the Wyclif translation of the Bible of 1382. Thus, you may confidently state that without the Bible there would be no “sex.”

The sax, referring not to the slate trimmer but to the saxophone, got its name from its inventor, Adolphe Sax. I would explore other musical derivations, including the origin of violin in the Italian violino and earlier viola, but the world already has too much sax and violins.

Speaking of violence, reader Peter Sharp noticed an unintentionally apt adjective in a Toronto Star article about smoke bombs set off on the Montreal subway. “Incensed commuters voiced their annoyance and concerns,” the piece said. Sharp’s suggested follow-up headline: Montreal subway riders fuming.

Don Cameron was taken aback by a headline he saw: “Why every government has it out for the CBC.” He writes: “I’ve always heard you had it in for someone or something that you wanted to harm. Is this some new Twitter lingo?”

The idiom is indeed “to have it in for someone,” an expression that was in use by 1849. Perhaps the headline-writer confused it with “to have the knives out for someone,” which similarly means to harbour hostile feelings (and possibly act on them), or “to have it out with someone,” to fight or argue with that person. With or without hand-saex.

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