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(This is Henry Sweet's original preface.)

This dictionary was undertaken at the request of the Delegates of the Clarendon Press, who, feeling the want of an abridgement of the large Anglo-Saxon dictionary (BT) still in progress, applied to me. From a variety of reasons I felt myself obliged to undertake the work. As the book was wanted as soon as possible, with a view to forestalling unauthorized abridgements, I could only undertake to do my best within a limited space and a limited period. Every dictionary is necessarily a compromise. If done ideally well and on an adequate scale, it is never finished—and an unfinished dictionary is worse than useless—or, if finished, is never uniform as regards materials and treatment. A dictionary which is good from a practical point of view—that is, which is finished within a reasonable time, and is kept within reasonable limits of space—must necessarily fall far short of ideal requirements. In short, we may almost venture on the paradox that a good dictionary is necessarily a bad one.


When I first began this work all the existing Anglo-Saxon dictionaries were completely antiquated. The old Bosworth is an uncritical compilation, which falls far short of the scientific requirements even of the period of its first publication. Ettmüller's Lexicon Anglosaxonicum is far superior as regards accuracy and fullness, but its unhappy arrangement of the words under hypothetical roots makes it practically useless to the beginner. Leo's Angelsächsisches Glossar combines the faults of both its predecessors with a recklessness in inventing new forms and meanings which is without a parallel even in Anglo-Saxon lexicography. I had hardly begun to work steadily at this dictionary when a Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary was brought out by Dr. Clark Hall (CH), an American scholar. CH is a work of great industry, and contains a good deal of new and valuable matter; but it is terribly uncritical, and embodies an enormous number of spurious words and meanings.

I have already said that this dictionary was undertaken as an abridgement of BT. But BT consists really of two fragments of dictionaries. The first part (A-FIR), for which Bosworth alone is responsible, is far inferior to the succeeding portions of the work, which have been edited by Prof Toller: these show a great and progressive improvement in fullness, accuracy and method. I have, of course, throughout checked and supplemented BT by the other dictionaries and glossaries—including my own glossaries to the Anglo-Saxon Reader and Oldest English Texts—and by a MS. dictionary of my own, begun many years ago, when I had scarcely emerged from boyhood. CH has also been of considerable service, as he gives references for many of the rarer words. But the labour of testing these, and separating the grains of wheat from the mass of chaff, has been great, and has materially retarded my progress. I have also found time to gather a good deal of fresh material from the texts themselves.


The great difficulty of Anglo-Saxon lexicography is that we have to rely for our material solely on a limited number of carelessly written and often badly edited manuscripts—there is no long series of native critics, grammarians and lexicographers to help us. The greatest difficulties are with the glossaries of detached words. In many of these English (that is, Anglo-Saxon) explanations of the Latin words are only occasionally interspersed among Latin renderings; and it is often a difficult task to determine whether a word is English or a miswritten word in Latin or some other language. One editor even prints resuanas as an English gloss to ineptias, not seeing that it stands simply for res vanas! And even when we are certain that a word is English we cannot be sure that it has not been displaced, so that it really has nothing to do with the Latin word it follows. Hence the imaginary word blere, 'onyx,' which still encumbers all the dictionaries except the present one. The connexion between the English gloss and its original is often very vague, as when napta [=naphtha) is glossed tynder, 'tinder,' on account of its inflammability! Again, the Latin words are often misspelt beyond recognition, and even when correctly spelt often cannot be found in any Latin dictionary, either classical or mediaeval. To deal fully and successfully with these glossaries would require a combination of qualities that has never yet been achieved, together with several lifetimes. The investigator of Old-English as a whole—to whom these glossaries are only subordinate sources of information—is therefore often obliged to work by guesswork, until some one else guesses better, and to be thankful for an occasional ray of light.

We have similar difficulties with the place-names in the Charters. Even in connected texts there are often great difficulties: such poems as Beowulf and the Exodus teem with obscurities, many of which will probably never be cleared up.

Doubtful matter

Although I have tried, as a general rule, to keep doubtful matter out of the dictionary, I have been careful to leave a margin, especially in dealing with a well-known text such as Beowulf. But I have often put the reader on his guard by adding (?), or by referring (by Cp.) to some other word of which the doubtful word may be a variant, or by indicating the source of an obscure word; thus R. tells him that the word or meaning occurs only in the Rhyming Poem, which is the most obscure of all the poems. The doubtfulness of a word is greatly increased when it occurs only once; accordingly in such cases I often add the warning once. Doubtful endings are printed in thin letters; thus gambe f. means that the word occurs only in the inflected form gamban, which may point either to a feminine gambe or a masculine gamba. So also pyffan means that the word occurs only in forms which leave it in doubt whether the infinitive is pyffan or pȳfan.

Late words

All Anglo-Saxon dictionaries contain words which are not Old-English, but belong to Transition-English (1100–1200), or even to Middle-English. Thus all dictionaries except the present one give a form abbot for abbod with a reference to the year 675 of the Chronicle, which certainly seems early enough. But unfortunately the whole of that entry is an interpolation in Transition- or Early Middle-English, so that the form abbot has no claim whatever to be regarded as Old-English. Another source of these forms are collections of texts such as Kluge's Lesebuch and Assmann's Homilien, which contain late Transition texts mixed up with Old-English ones, so that late forms get into the glossaries to these books, whence they are copied by uncritical compilers. But I have thought it right to keep many of the words which occur in the later portions of the Chronicle, partly on the chance of their being really older than their first occurrence, partly because of the continuity and great importance of the Chronicle. Words that first occur towards the end of the eleventh century are marked vL. — 'very late.'

Unnatural words

As the Old-English literature consists largely of translations, we may expect to find in it a certain number of words which are contrary to the genius of the language, some of them being positive monstrosities, the result of over-literal rendering of Latin words. I often warn the reader against them by adding (!). These unnatural words are not confined to interlinear translations. The translator of Bede's History is a great offender, and I have had constantly to add the warning Bd. Among the poetical texts the Psalms are especially remarkable for the number of unmeaning compounds they contain, evidently manufactured for the sake of the alliteration; this text also contains many other unnatural words and word- meanings; hence the frequent addition of Ps.


In a concise dictionary so much must be omitted that it is necessary to follow strict principles of selection, so as to omit what is least essential and to give most space to what is most important. Otherwise we might easily fall into the error of giving more space to a demonstration of the spuriousness or unnaturalness of a word than to a statement of the meanings and constructions of some really important word. The test of a dictionary is not the number of words it contains, but the fullness of treatment of the commonest words.

Brevity and conciseness have not only the negative advantage of saving space, but also the positive one of facilitating reference by enabling the eye to take in at a glance what would otherwise be scattered over a wide space. It will be seen that the three-column arrangement of the present dictionary, together with the use of systematic contractions and typographical devices, has made it possible to carry compactness and brevity further than has yet been done, and without any loss of clearness. Thus, instead of the lengthy w. dat. of pers, and gen. of thing, I write simply wdg. Much, too, may be done by omitting what is superfluous. Thus, by adding its class-number to each strong verb, I dispense with the addition of str. vb. Again, as nearly all verbs are recognizable by their ending -an, the absence of the class-numbers serves all the purposes of adding wk. vb., the classes of the weak verbs being easily discriminated by the presence or absence of a mutated vowel in the root. The ignoring of ge- in the alphabetic arrangement (p. xii) has also been a great saving of space: under the old arrangement the reader was often obliged to look up a verb twice, perhaps only to find that the ge- forms were confined to the preterite participle; as if a student of German were expected to look up nahm under nehmen and genommen under genehmen!


The first business of a dictionary such as the present one is to give the meanings of the words in plain Modern English, discriminating clearly the different meanings of each word, but doing this briefly and without the attempt to give all the English words that may be used to translate the Old-English word. Etymological translation should be avoided; thus geþofta does not mean 'one who sits on the same rowing-bench.' Less mischievous, but equally silly, is the practice of translating an Old-English word by some obsolete or dialectal word, which is assumed—sometimes falsely—to be connected with the Old-English one. Thus, when we have once translated bearn by 'child' there is no more reason for adding 'bairn' than there is for adding 'kid' or any other synonym. It is curious that this kind of thing is done only in the Germanic languages: no one thinks of translating un veau cést le petit d’une vache by 'a veal, it is the little of a cow,' or of telling us that 'a veal is less grand than a beef.' One practical advantage of avoiding this kind of translation is that when the reader finds in a dictionary such as the present one lǣce explained as meaning 'leech' as well as 'physician,' he feels quite certain that the former word is not a mere repetition of the meaning of the latter. But in some cases where there is no example of the primitive meaning of a word, and yet there is reason to believe that it actually existed in Old-English, I give it in ( ); thus under wacan I give (awake).

The distinct meanings are separated by (;), groups of meanings being further marked off by | and ||, the latter being especially used to separate the transitive and intransitive meanings of verbs.

The ambiguity of many English words makes it difficult to define meanings with certainty without full quotations. The best method is to add part of the context in ( ): thus I explain ādragan by 'draw (sword),' scomian by 'hang heavy (of clouds),' where the italic of stands for 'said of.'


are next in importance to definitions, though an extensive use of them is quite incompatible with the nature of a concise dictionary. But idioms ought to be given whenever they offer difficulty. Sometimes, too, a quotation is shorter than a detailed explanation. Whenever space has allowed it, I have also given quotations even when they are not absolutely necessary.


I omit entirely, as being inconsistent with the plan of this dictionary. But I indicate the sources of words in many cases; and † = 'poetical' is practically a reference to Grein's Glossar, where full references may be found.


Constructions are given with considerable fullness.

Irregular forms

Irregular forms which can be better studied in an ordinary grammar are dealt with very briefly. Thus I characterize bēc as 'pl. of bōc' without going into further details, while under the rarer āc I give fuller details.

Cognate words

Cognate words are given only in Old- English itself. It would, indeed, have argued a strange want of the sense of proportion if I had sacrificed my quotations in order to tell the reader that mann is cognate with Danish mand, or to refer him from the perfectly transparent compound līc-hama to the misleading German leichnam. But I give the sources of borrowed words—or, at least, indicate the language from which they are taken—as this information is definitely limited, and throws direct light on the meaning of the word.


In this dictionary the head-words are given in their Early West-Saxon spellings, with, of course, such restrictions and exceptions as are suggested by practical considerations. Feminine nouns in -ung, -ing are given under the former spelling, unless they occur only in the latter. The ending -nis, -nes is always written -nes; -o interchanging with -u, as in bearo, menigo is always written -o, to distinguish it from the -u of sunu, caru. The silent e in c(e)aru, sc(e)ort is always omitted in the head-words. It is evident that it would have been idle to attempt to do justice to such minute variations in a work like the present one. So also I ignore the diphthong io always writing it eo, in spite of its etymological value in certain texts.

As the regular variations of spelling are given in the List (p. xiv) in alphabetical order, they are not repeated under each word. To save space I have made some use of etymological diacritics. Thus the West-Saxon ǣ which corresponds to Anglian and Kentish ē is written æ̂ (as in dæ̂d). So also ie, , ę all represent the same Early West-Saxon sound, but each corresponds to a different vowel in the other dialects namely i, e, ę respectively, as in bierto, sciėld, cięle = Anglian and Kentish birhto, sceld, cięle. Variations of spelling which require to be specially noted are given—as in my History of English Sounds—in an abridged form; thus wita, io implies wiota, the diphthong being given to show that the i of wita is short. So also bēn, oe implies boen; feorm, a implies farm the diphthongs ea, eo, ia, io, ie, oe being treated as simple vowels. Where necessary, the place of the vowel is indicated thus: a- (first syllable), -a (last syllable), -a- (middle syllable). Forms that do not occur are marked *. Hence brīesan*, ȳ means that the word occurs only in the spelling brysan, but that this is probably only a late spelling, and that if the word occurred in an Early West-Saxon text it would probably be written with ie. As the reader cannot possibly know beforehand whether the spelling he believes or knows to be the normal one actually occurs or not, it is surely better to put the word in the place where he expects to find it than to give way to a too great distrust of hypothetical forms.


Cross-references are given sparingly, and only when really useful to those for whom the dictionary is intended. The reader who wants a cross-reference from bundon to bindan—perhaps expects to have it repeated with forbindan and all the other derivatives—had better devote a few hours to my Anglo-Saxon Primer. There is no system of cross-references which will enable people ignorant of the elements of Old-English to read charters and other original texts in Old-English; and cross-references for forms which occur only in interlinear glosses are of no use to beginners, for no beginner would think of reading such texts with a dictionary — or, indeed, of reading them at all. No one who has an elementary knowledge of West-Saxon will have the slightest difficulty in recognizing such a word as woruld by its context, even in the disguise of wiarald. If he has, he need only turn to the list of various spellings, where he will find ia=eo, and in the dictionary itself he will find weoruld with a reference to woruld.

In conclusion, I venture to say that, whatever may be the faults and defects of this work, I believe it to be the most trustworthy Anglo-Saxon dictionary that has yet appeared.


October 1, 1896