The Etymology and Meanings of Eldritch

By Hall, Alaric | Scottish Language, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

The Etymology and Meanings of Eldritch


Hall, Alaric, Scottish Language


The meanings of the early attestations of the Scots word eldritch are given in the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (hereafter DOST) as 'Belonging to, or resembling, the elves or similar beings' and 'Connected with, proceeding from, suggestive of, elves or supernatural beings; weird, strange, uncanny' (s.v. Elriche). (1) However, although eldritch has entered English usage more generally since C.S. Lewis appropriated it as a critical term, its etymology remains uncertain. The Oxford English Dictionary (hereafter OED), and later DOST, cautiously derived eldritch from Old English *aelf-rice ('elf' + 'dominion, sphere of influence'). In 1985, however, Martin Puhvel suggested in a brief note that the etymology is rather *ael-rice~el-rice, the first element meaning 'foreign, strange; from elsewhere', and the whole therefore meaning 'other world'. (2) His case seems not to have been absorbed into scholarship on Scottish literature, which has tentatively maintained the traditional association with aelf. (3) The purpose of the present note, then, is twofold. Firstly, I argue that Puhvel's idea is almost certainly correct, but not for the reasons which he suggested: Puhvel saw the lack of an f in the Older Scots forms of eldritch as an impediment to the etymology *aelf-rice, whereas in fact the loss of this f would be a common sound change. The variant vowels to which DOST's citations attest, however, do militate against *aelf-rice and in favour of *ael-rice. My second point is that the putative origin of eldritch in yell- seems to have influenced the definitions of eldritch given both in DOST and in more recent scholarship: its connotations of elves and elvishness have in some circumstances been overplayed, and the more general meaning of 'otherworldly' is to be preferred.

The etymologising of the first element of eldritch as *aelf- goes back to John Jamieson's Dictionary of the Scottish Language of 1846:

   This term has most probably been formed from A.-S. Su.-G. aelf,
   genius, daemonium, and A.-S. tic, Su.-G. rik, rich; q. abounding in
   spirits; as primarily descriptive of a place supposed to be under
   the power of evil genii. It greatly confirms this etymon, that the
   term, as more generally used, conveys the idea of something
   preternatural. (4)

Jamieson's etymology of the second element is slightly problematic, and the OED (s.v. eldritch), and subsequently DOST (s.v. Elriche), gave instead the noun rice (defined by Bosworth and Toller as 'power, authority, dominion, rule, empire, reign' and more rarely 'the people inhabiting a district, a nation'), implying an etymological meaning along the lines of 'fairy kingdom'. (5) This is plausible, and does not need to be discussed at length. Phonologically, the interpretation is unproblematic: one might compare the development of bisceop-rice 'bishopric' to late Middle English bishoprich (the modern pronunciation showing the irregular failure of palatalisation, perhaps under Scandinavian influence). (6) Some spellings of eldritch also show irregular phonological developments--the various examples in -sh like alrish probably show analogical levelling with the adjectival suffix -ish < Old English -isc--but the -ritch-type forms are prevalent enough that these need not be considered a major obstacle to an etymology in -rice. The development of *aelf-rice 'fairy kingdom' from noun to adjective would be slightly surprising, but could partly be due to analogy with the adjective rice 'powerful, wealthy' (and its Norman French counterpart riche); it is at any rate paralleled by the (possibly later) development of fairy from 'the land or home of the fays' to 'of or pertaining to fairies' (OED, s.v. fairy [section][section]A. 1., B. 1.).

Jamieson's interpretation of the first element of eldritch as aelf, however, is at first sight viable, and has been followed by the OED and DOST. Its development--contrary to Puhvel's assumption--would be well-parallelled phonologically. …

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