• Paul Anthony Jones

Wintercearig

(adj.) ‘winter-sorrow’: feeling downhearted or despondent as a result of, or as desolately as, the winter [Old English]



If the depths of winter have you feeling a bit down, the Anglo-Saxons had a word for that.



Wintercearig is a word recorded independently just once in the entire history of our language, in The Book of Exeter, a collection of Old English texts, verses, stories and riddles. It contains a 115-line poem called The Wanderer, which relates the thoughts and meditations of a lonely exile (an ‘eardstapa’ or ‘earth-stepper’) as he thinks back over the events of his life. Precisely who wrote the poem and when is unknown, but it must have been in circulation in Anglo-Saxon England for some time before the Exeter compilers first recorded it in the late tenth century. And in their version, you’ll find this line:


ond ic hēan þonan wōd wintercearig ofer waþema gebind
[And I, abject, from there, travelled with winter-sorrow over the ice-bound waves]

Cearig is the Anglo-Saxon ancestor of our word ‘chary’—and is a derivative of cearu, the ancestor of our word ‘care’. Care itself originally meant ‘grief’ or ‘sorrow’ in Old English (similarly to be careful was to be woeful), but from there its meaning expanded to include anything that proves a mental burden or consumes your thoughts. Ultimately, care became a word for anything at all that demands your full attention. Chary, meanwhile, took a different route, and has ended up meaning ‘wary’, or ‘hesitant’. In both cases, the original implications of ‘anxiousness’ or ‘sorrow’ have now largely disappeared.


As for the ‘winter’ in wintercearig, it has has remained unchanged of course—but it’s unclear here how it should best be interpreted. And, for that matter, it’s difficult to say what the full implication of this word truly is.


As well as meaning ‘the coldest season of the year’, winter was also used to refer to an actual period of a year in Old English—indeed, we still sometimes hear of things enduring for a number of winters today (though admittedly, only in formal or literary contexts).


The meaning of wintercearig, consequently, could either be ‘sorrowed by the winter months’ themselves, or ‘sorrowed by the passing of too many winters’. Or perhaps this is all just a metaphor, and the eponymous Wanderer is neither feeling worn down by to the bleak conditions he finds himself in, nor by his own advancing years, but is simply feeling as bleak and as grim as a desolate winter landscape? Or perhaps the writer of this line knew full well that this word could be interpreted in lots of different ways, and so intentionally used it because it juxtaposes all of these different meanings? It’s all but impossible to say.

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