- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) the oldest and often wisest inhabitant of a village or parish
The oldest and wisest inhabitant of somewhere, whose memory of it extends further back than all other local people, is the sithcundman.
This is a particularly ancient word, rescued from obscurity by the Scottish poet and writer Charles Mackay, in an 1874 dictionary of what he called Lost Beauties of the English Language. In Mackay’s words, a sithcundman is:
The oldest inhabitant; one who knows what has happened a long time since; one known for a long time. The chief man in a town, district, or parish.
But where does the word actually come from? Etymologists have been puzzling this one for decades, and its dissimilarity to practically every other word in our language today has led to lots of theories (some more reliable than others) being proposed over the years.
It’s true history stretches back to the very earliest days of the English language. After the Anglo-Saxon settlers of England ousted the native Celtic Britons from their land, there existed for several centuries in England a fluctuating network of Saxon kingdoms known as the Heptarchy. (The precise number and arrangement of these kingdoms shifted over time, but as the name heptarchy suggests, there were a core set of seven: East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex.)
Documents from around this time record this word, sithcundman, seemingly in reference to significant regional figures of slightly lesser importance or role than a higher-ranking earl. As one glossary of Anglo-Saxon English defines it, a sithcundman was a “petty gentleman” of middling rank, as opposed to a higher-ranking royal thane or nobleman.
Etymologically, a gesiþ in Old English was a “fellow, companion or follower of a chief or king,” according to Bosworth and Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary; the adjective gesiþcund (literally ‘like a gesiþ’, or a ‘gesiþ-kind’ person) ultimately described anyone of this rank; and so we can presume that a sithcundman was a man of this stature or nature.
There’s relatively little written evidence of this word at all (especially considering how much contemporary evidence there is of other Anglo-Saxon titles and ranks from this time) so we can presume it wasn’t a particularly well-known or widely-used term even back in tis heyday. As a result, it appears to have quickly fallen out of use—perhaps replaced by some similar rank or moniker after the Norman Conquest of England injected a host of French words into the English nobility in the eleventh century.
Either way, the use of the word to refer to essentially a village elder—or to some similar figure, who is likewise looked up to and admired for their wisdom and longevity—appears to be a later figurative extension or application of the original Anglo-Saxon, which presumably emerged long after the original meaning of the word had fallen out of use.