An Elf by Any Other Name

In the world of Into the Wonder, “faery” is not always considered a politically correct word. It is thought too forward or aggressive, and therefore it is considered better to use euphemisms like “the Fair Folk.” Another option available to those in the know is to refer to various eldritch beings by their specific faery “species” or kindred: pooka, duine sídhe, etc.

Something similar happened in Iceland with respect to the ancient Norse álfar or “elves.” So as not to appear disrespectful, Icelanders began referring to these supernatural creatures with the euphemism huldufólk, “the hidden people.”

You Keep Using That Word…

Elves will make their formal appearance in The Devil’s Due, the second installment of Into the Wonder. Though I like the idea of people avoiding the word “elf” as (at least mildly) offensive, huldufólk doesn’t really work for my purposes as an appropriate alternative. “My” elves come mainly from England, not Scandinavia. So I’ve been working on a short list of euphemisms to refer to these creatures that come from the same Old English context from which I’ve derived the creatures themselves.

I have been surprised to see how little evidence there actually is for likely terms. Almost all of what follows comes from a doctoral dissertation that I have found extremely helpful in imagining how elves were perceived in Anglo-Saxon culture: Alaric Hall’s “The Meanings of Elf and Elves in Medieval England,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Glasgow, 2004 (PDF). (There is also a brief summary page with PDFs of individual chapters.)

Here, then, are some of the options I’ve discovered.

Terms Describing Grendel

In Beowulf, the monster Grendel is depicted as a cousin of numerous dangerous supernatural beings including giants, ogres…and elves. According to the author of Beowulf, all of these are descendants of the biblical Cain. Some of the terms used to describe Grendel might work as a description of his supposed kinfolk, the elves. (I should perhaps note that the elves of Anglo-Saxon England were a fair bit more sinister than the elves Tolkien described in The Lord of the Rings. If Tolkien had drawn his elves from England rather than the Vikings, they’d have been fighting alongside the orcs and trolls. Or, more likely, calling the shots behind the scenes.)

  • maercstapa, “creeper/stalker in the marches” (103). When Grendel first appears by name, he is called a “border-stalker.”
  • Caines cyn, “kin of Cain” (107). This term might work except that, in context, it can refer to a number of monstrous beings, only one of which is elfkind. Also, it calls for a particular theological interpretation of elf-kind that I’m not sure all elves would buy into.
  • ellengaést, “powerful/bold spirit” (86). This term has great promise, I think. The meaning is obviously something the elves would take as a compliment, and it even sounds right.
  • ellorgást, “alien, alien spirit” (807). Might work for the sort of thing humans would call elves, but I don’t see elves calling themselves “aliens.”
  • sceadugenga, “shadow-walker/wanderer” (703). Probably the coolest option.

Terms Describing Elves Proper

All of the above terms have potential, but none of them apply strictly to elves. Let’s see what happens when we look specifically for roundabout ways of talking about elves as such. Unfortunately, there are no Old English narratives that feature elves. There are, however, a number of medical texts that give treatments for the various afflictions for which elves might be responsible. A couple of these describe elves in roundabout ways that might serve as a general euphemism for “elf.”

  • nihtgenga, “night-walker/wanderer.” The text Wið aelfcynne (“For Elf-kin”) gives us this term, which ranks with “shadow-walker” on the coolness scale.
  • hy, “they.” The first half of another medical text, Wið færstice (“For a Sudden Stitch”), uses a number of roundabout terms for dangerous spiritual beings before naming them explicitly in the second half. In lines 1, 2, and 7, these threatening powers are simply called “they.” I can see humans hesitate to name elves at all, and simply calling them “they” or “them.” Such a practice has parallels with Manx expressions such as “themselves” and “them what’s in it.”
  • smiðas, “smiths/craftsmen.” This term is found in lines 11 and 14 of Wið færstice, where it refers to elves as fashioners of supernatural weapons to use against mortals (i.e., elf-shot).

Terms Describing Female Elves (or Something)

Wið færstice also mentions a class of supernatural female that is closely associated with elves. It isn’t entirely clear that these females are elves, however. They might be human witches. Or, they might be something like waelcyrigan (“valkyries”), which Hall argues are female counterparts of elves. Hall comments that, for the given time period, the boundary between a supernatural woman and a woman who has supernatural powers is quite blurry, so it’s probably not worth splitting hairs (see p. 174). At any rate, these females are called by two different names:

  • mihtigan wif, “mighty/powerful women.”
  • haegtessan, “hedge-riders” or “hedge-faeries.”

Haegtessan (singular, haegtesse) needs a little bit of explanation. The first element, haeg, is probably a variation of haga, meaning “hedge” or “enclosure.” Other Germanic languages have the expression “hedge-rider” for this sort of being. In Old English, the second element, tesse, might be related to Norwegian tysja in the sense of “faery.”

Conclusions

That, then is my raw data. What, though, am I to make of it? 

  • I’m thinking English-derived elves  may not be quite as touchy about the word “elf” as faeries are by the word “faery.” (Their Icelandic cousins may well think differently, however!)
  • At the same time, if the elves of c. AD 800 were still around today, would they appreciate the way the word “elf” has changed in meaning? How fiercely would they resist being lumped in with Christmastide toy-makers or mischievous, diminutive house-faeries?
  • Assuming there is a need for an alternative term, there are some decent options out there. I’m personally partial to either ellengaést or nihtgenga. Furthermore, there are some possibilities from mixing and matching among them: haegstapan (“hedge-stalkers”), ellenfolc (“powerful/bold people”), etc., while not truly authentic, might at least be plausible.

That’s probably more than anybody wanted to read, but I suppose I’m just a stickler for getting the names right.

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