Friday, February 10, 2012

A Tale of Two Words

The two words in question are the Modern High German recke, which means 'knight, hero, warrior'. The other word is its modern English cognate wretch, which means 'one who is sunk in deep distress, sorrow misfortune or poverty; a miserable, unhappy or unfortunate person". It was striking to me how different the modern equivalents are and to whoever wrote the entry for the Oxford English Dictionary, since the entry on the etymology of the word says 'the contrast in the development of the meaning in English and German is remarkable.' Indeed, they are light years apart. There was an Old Norse word rekkr, meaning 'man' which disappeared from modern Icelandic.
The Old English version of wretch was wrecca or wræcca from the Old Germanic wrakja (n). Old Saxon was wrekkio and was applied to the Magi in the Heliand as "foreigners". Sigemund, in Beowulf, is called the most famous of wreccena, as he is a wandering hero. Hengest is called a wrecca, a mercenary, but Beowulf makes a point of making sure Hrothgar does not take him for a wrecca. The woman in the OE 'Wife's Lament' calls herself a friendless exile and the man in 'The Seafarer' calls himself a wræcca, an exile, as well. Wrecca is pronounced 'wretch' as the double 'cc' has that 'tch' sound. Like wicca, which is pronounced 'witch'. It is interesting to note that English chose to emphasize the negatives aspects of the word, where the German chose the glorious. Might be a good topic for a paper.

6 comments:

Tracy said...

That's fascinating - I love finding out the etymology of words. This one definitely makes a good topic for a paper.

The Red Witch said...

It would. I wonder if the divergence is due to earlier conversion to Christianity or what. Course that would be hard to gauge.

Anachronist said...

Modern High German recke, which means 'knight, hero, warrior'. The other word is its modern English cognate wretch, which means 'one who is sunk in deep distress, sorrow misfortune or poverty; a miserable, unhappy or unfortunate person"

I would explain it this way: if you are stupid enough to start as a knight/warrior, you might one day end up as an old wretch so know thy best interest and think!

Germans tend to drink too much beer to be pessimistic.

The Red Witch said...

Wrecca aren't knights as much as they are mercenaries. The wretchedness comes from being in exile from your home and family. Kinship is very important in those stories.
Let's hear it for beer! I knew there was something I like about it. Many Canadians use it to combat cabin fever when the winters get too harsh to go outside.

Tim Shaw said...

Consider the clan-oriented culture of northern Europe: being alone was potentially disastrous because of the harsh environment. The one who survives this life as a wretch (outcast) might very well be considered a hero/knight (Recke). (I wrote this paper years ago in grad school, for a History of English Language class.)
Nice blog.

The Red Witch said...

Funny you should say that. I did write a grad paper on 'wrecca' too but mainly on how the poet of Beowulf uses it because, Hengest, who is identified as a wrecca, was not alone. He still had his 'heap'. And Sigemund had Fitela. And there is the problem of the Finnsburg Fragment. What form of the story did the poet of Beowulf know? Sigeferth, who proudly proclaims himself to be a 'wrecca' does not seem at all alone and may not even be an exile.
Grendel and his mother who might be called 'wretches' were called anything but. Plus there is that connection to the verb 'wrecan' which means to avenge or punish.