Monday, September 29, 2014

The Keeper of the Loaf, the Distributer of the Bread of Life

I am geekily interested in language, in words, and I took a year-long course in Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon) during graduate school.  This language underlies Modern English (which the KJV and Shakespeare’s plays are written in and which we are still modifying) and is akin to German and Dutch. 

Folks were translating the Vulgate (late 4th/early 5th century Latin) into Anglo-Saxon as early as the 7th century AD, and one of the words they translated was the Latin word we understand as Lord—Domine or Dominus.  You can see in that word the root of dominate.  The word these ancient Anglo-Saxons used to translate it was generally Driht (or Dryht) or Drihten, which meant the leader of a people or an army.  This word didn’t survive the Norman invasion and modifications of the language that made Old English into Middle English.

John Wyclif’s translation (with which he probably had some help) was into Middle English in the 15th century.  In that version the word is “lord” as it continues to be into the KJV and Modern English

The Hebrew words translated “lord” are “the one who is” (Yahweh); the ruler or master (‘adonay); ruler, superintendent, proprietor, husband, owner (‘adown). The Greek word is primarily “owner, master, supreme being, controller, decider” (kyrios). In the KJV and many subsequent translations, Yahweh is translated as LORD, all caps. By the way, Howard Macy, a friend of mine who knows Hebrew (see more at, told me, "One of the understandings of this word is causative. That is, YHWH is the one who causes to be, who is the mover and shaker, etc....the God who makes things happen."

“Lord” comes from the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) word “hlaford.” This means loaf-keeper or loaf-guardian. The culture surrounding the hlaford was the tribal culture of these ancient Germanic people; extended family groups called sippes elected the most accomplished warrior to be their hlaford; this chief gathered warriors around him bound by ties of loyalty that included the vow to die prior to their hlaford in any battle. They would give their lives to protect him.  In exchange, the hlaford hosted the band of warriors (gave them bread) and distributed treasure gained from battles. The hlaford also prevented or mediated feuds that developed between or within sippes.

As a bit of side information, the word “lady” comes from Anglo-Saxon meaning “loaf-kneader”—which shows how language changes in connotation and even denotation over time.  By the time the Bible was translated into modern English, “ladies” had little to do with kneading bread.

My imagination is taken by the cultural issues of translation. First, the original translation from Latin into Anglo-Saxon emphasized the Lord of Hosts—the leader of a people.  I think this helps us remember that we are part of the hosts, the people, of whom God is the leader.  The military mindset of Anglo-Saxons may trouble the peace-lovers among us, but we remember early Quakers participating in the Lamb’s war rather than the English Civil War. We need to be so taken up with the business of our leader that we don’t have time to kill each other over religion and politics, separately or combined.

The other aspect that grabs my imagination is in the actual etymology of “Lord”—the loaf guardian.  This reminds me of Jesus as the divine Loaf, the Bread of Life, who gave his body for our redemption. As we gather, we expect our Lord to give us bread, and as we “ingest” our savior, Jesus’s life and spirit transform us. Again, in the heart of this word Lord is the loyalty of great warriors to the very best warrior, the strongest, the most valiant, and the smartest one of all. We are challenged to lay down our lives, to present our bodies as living sacrifices, for the sake of our Lord. 

Sources of information (besides Howard, of course):
 Etymology:  Old English hláford , once hláfweard (Ps. civ. 17; Thorpe's ‘to hálf-wearde’ is a misprint: see note in Greek-Wülck.), repr. a prehistoric form *hlaiƀward- , < *hlaiƀ (Old English hláf ) bread, loaf n.1 + *ward (Old English weard ) keeper (see ward n.1). In its primary sense the word (which is absent from the other Germanic languages) denotes the head of a household in his relation to the servants and dependents who ‘eat his bread’ (compare Old English hláf-ǽta, lit. ‘bread-eater’, a servant); but it had already acquired a wider application before the literary period of Old English The development of sense has been largely influenced by the adoption of the word as the customary rendering of Latin dominus.