Beowulf and modern appliances:

I've just been reading Beowulf in the recent verse translation by Seamus Heaney. It's a bilingual edition, with the Old English on the left and Heaney's version on the right. On two separate occasions, I've noticed a particular expression, "sæl ond mæl."

For instance, in lines 1008-09, we have:

... | þa wæs sæl ond mæl
þæt to healle gang | Healfdenes sunu;
which Heaney translates: "Then the due time arrived for Halfdane's son to proceed to the hall." Similarly, in lines 1607-11, we have a wonderful image describing how the sword that Beowulf used to kill Grendel's mom melts from her scalding blood:
... | þæt wæs wundra sum,
þæt hit eal gemealt | ise gelicost,
ðonne forstes bend | fæder onlæteð,
onwindeð wælrapas, | se geweald hafað
sæla ond mæla; | þæt is soð metod.
which Heaney translates: "It was a wonderful thing, the way it all melted as ice melts when the Father eases the fetters off the frost and unravels the water-ropes. He who wields power over time and tide: He is the true Lord."

Unraveling the water-ropes! How can one not love the Anglo-Saxons?

(Digression: Someone should film Beowulf, not like in the atrocious 1999 version with Christopher Lambert, but rather with Klingons. "It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning." Perhaps the upcoming Robert Zemeckis version will have a Klingon in it? Or, for a more complex vision, perhaps David Boreanaz as Beowulf?)

The word "sæl," also spelled "sele," is listed as "obsolete, except in dialect" in the OED, which hasn't seen the word since 1875. The word apparently has no modern equivalents or similar words, and I'm unaware of common related words in other languages. Anyway, this word means "happiness, prosperity, good fortune," and in addition means "favourable or proper time, opportune moment; occasion, opportunity; season, time of day."

The word "mæl" is the same as the modern English word "meal." No, I'm not talking about the sense of "something ground," as in "cornmeal" (similar to the word "mill" and even related to the Russian word "blin"). Rather, I'm talking about the sense of "a time or occasion; a particular time, a suitable time; a period of time," which is also used in a more specific sense of "a customary or social occasion of taking food, esp. at a more or less fixed time of day, as breakfast, dinner, etc.," and in its metonymic sense of "the food and drink consumed at or provided for such an occasion." (Compare with the German words "Mal," as in "einmal," and "Mahl," as in "Abendmahl.")

So "sele and meal," meaning "the due time," or, if you will, "time and tide."

Why do I bring this up? Only to alert you that, when you come across this expression, you should not confuse it with the kitchen appliance Seal-a-Meal.

Related Posts (on one page):

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  2. Beowulf and modern appliances:
kerouacbum (mail):
Too much time on your hands now that exams are done, Professor?
12.22.2006 12:18am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
My students are writing papers. They're due tomorrow (i.e., today, Friday), and I get to spend the weekend grading them.
12.22.2006 12:21am
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
My late father in law used to remark that to do a really good translation, the translator must be superior, in BOTH languages, to the original author. I suppose that poses a special challenge to one who would translate a language long out of use! here we have the use of the same phrase to reflect "the appropriate time" and "the passage of time and the will of fate."

A related matter: the use of "corn," in latin and in english, to refer to "grain," Thus reference to the Roman "corn fleets" that carried wheat from Egypt to Rome, and centuries later, to "corned" gunpowder, meaning that which was formed into grains rather than left as loose powder. Still in minor use today, as "peppercorns."
12.22.2006 12:47am
Jim Chen (mail) (www):

Fantastic command of Anglo-Saxon and of Indo-European philology in general.

Here is the etymological note on sele from Wiktionary:


From Germanic *salaz, from Indo-European *sel-. Cognate with Old Saxon seli (Dutch zaal), Old High German sal (German Saal), Old Norse salr (Swedish sal), Lombardic sala; and with Old Church Slavonic (and Russian) село.

And see this scholarly article.

Thanks for the post. Simply fascinating.

Jim Chen
12.22.2006 1:27am
Bobo Linq (mail):
I'd guess that "sael" is likely related to the German word "selig."
12.22.2006 1:29am
The River Temoc (mail):
You have never enjoyed Beowulf until you have read it in the original Klingon.
12.22.2006 2:24am
Am I the only one who thinks that Mel Gibson would do a really first-rate Beowulf film? Of course, all of it in Old English. On the other hand, Zemeckis's casting of Crispin Glover as Grendel is tops.
12.22.2006 6:21am
wb (mail):
Terrific post. I am always fascinated the philology. And the Beowulf texts are wonderful writing.
12.22.2006 7:26am
Kristian (mail):

Am I the only one who thinks that Mel Gibson would do a really first-rate Beowulf film?


And Peter Jackson would too (LoTR and a some lesser horror movies...)
12.22.2006 8:47am
Friðjón R Friðjónsson (mail):
In Icelandic which has changed very little from Old Norse which in turn is very related to Old English the word "sæl" (the female form of sæll) has many meanings. Happiness, blessed and a salutation. I have not heard or remember at the top of my head it being used as a reference to time.

Mæla is a word in Icelandic with at least two meanings, one being speaking and the other measuring. It is derived from "mál" which is essentially the same word as meal(in English) and malh in German.
12.22.2006 9:05am
liberty (mail) (www):
"Or, for a more complex vision, perhaps David Boreanaz as Beowulf?"

Ooh, hot!
12.22.2006 9:57am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Jim Chen: There are at least two, entirely separate, versions of sele. The Wiktionary page you linked to has both. There's a version meaning "hall," which is related to the German "Saal," the Russian "зал," the French "salle," the Spanish "sala," etc. It's derived from the Old Teutonic root "sæloz." (For what it's worth, the OED is unaware of the spelling "sele" for that meaning -- it's got sæl, sal-, sale, sall, saile, saill, and sayll.)

But that's not the word used in Beowulf. That one is derived from the Old Teutonic root "sæli-z" and means "happiness," not "hall"; that's the one listed on top of the Wiktionary page.

Bobo Linq: You're right. The word is related to the modern German "selig." I should have thought of that. In English the word became "seely," which morphed into our modern word "silly" (which now has very different connotations).
12.22.2006 10:12am
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):

Am I the only one who thinks that Mel Gibson would do a really first-rate Beowulf film?


And Peter Jackson would too (LoTR and a some lesser horror movies...)

There is actually a Beowulf film coming out. It's directed by Robert "Forrest Gump" Zemeckis, and starring Ray Winstone as Beowulf. Winstone, for those unfamiliar with his (largely great) earlier work, was Mr. French in The Departed, the demented associate of Jack Nicholson.
12.22.2006 10:37am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Mike BULS07: I link to that Zemeckis film in my post.
12.22.2006 10:48am
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
D'oh!!! Sorry Sasha, that's what I get for reading the thread and not the post.
12.22.2006 10:55am
Jiminy (mail):
"I'm the guy who says who you can and can't hit." Loved that movie. It's still playing at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Sq for those interested. I will definitely check out Beowulf - is it intended to cover the full saga, or just the Grendel encounter?
12.22.2006 11:36am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Jiminy: You really should skip the Christopher Lambert movie. Don't know about the Zemeckis movie, which isn't out yet. Other movies include the not-yet-released Beowulf: Prince of the Geats and the 2005 movie Beowulf &Grendel, which, from my understanding, is a version with a lot of back story, sex, a humanized Grendel, Christianity-bashing, and lots of moral equivalence. Not to say it's therefore bad, but I would guess it's very different from the original poem.

Finally, the Antonio Banderas movie The 13th Warrior is loosely inspired by Beowulf, to the extent that the original Michael Crichton novel contains Beowulfic elements. But it's not very good. For more details, see my earlier (2002) blog post on medieval movies is here; it discusses The 13th Warrior.
12.22.2006 12:01pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Oh yes, and I do recall enjoying the book Grendel by John Gardner -- Beowulf from Grendel's point of view.
12.22.2006 12:02pm
liberty (mail) (www):
"Oh yes, and I do recall enjoying the book Grendel by John Gardner -- Beowulf from Grendel's point of view."

If I recall, we read that (along with a translation of the Beowulf poem) in 8th grade lit class. I liked it.
12.22.2006 12:12pm
One idea for translating sæle would be as "hap" because that captures both the happenstance/luck aspect and the happiness/blessedness aspects, akin to the word Glück in German.
12.22.2006 3:01pm

One idea for translating sæle would be as "hap" because that captures both the happenstance/luck aspect and the happiness/blessedness aspects, akin to the word Glück in German

Actually, luck and Glück have the same root connected through Dutch.
I am distressed that an actual Icelander beat me to the Icelandic connection for sæl. I noticed this thread too late.
12.22.2006 4:54pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
ys: True, but of course Glück has the requisite meaning, which luck doesn't. On Icelandic matters, there's no way any of us can compete with someone called Friðjón Friðjónsson.
12.22.2006 5:03pm
If sæl means happiness and mæl means meal, couldn't you translate the phrase as "happy meal"?
12.23.2006 12:13am
It's easy to look knowledgeable in the language nobody speaks. However, making references to Russian you should expect that some native speakers of the language might see your post. Where do you see even a tenuous connection between a word "blin" which means a pancake and mill or meal? I am curious if you had another word in mind and what word it could be.
12.23.2006 10:15am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Bilingual: As it happens, I too am a native speaker! But I get the connection with "blin" not from my native-speakerish knowledge, but from the etymology section on "meal" in the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED says:


[Cognate with Old Frisian mele, Middle Dutch mēle (Dutch meel), Old Saxon melo (Middle Low German meel, mehel, mēl, mēle), Old High German mel, melo (Middle High German mel, German Mehl), Old Icelandic mjol (Icelandic mjöl), Old Swedish miöl, miol (Swedish mjöl), Old Danish miel (Danish meel, mel) < an Indo-European base with numerous reflexes (as classical Latin mola mill), and variants in other ablaut grades (cf. from the O-grade Dutch malen grind, whirl; from the zero-grade MOULD n.1, ancient Greek μύλη, μύλος, mill, millstone, and prob. also Russian blin BLIN n.2) and with various root extensions (cf. MALM n., MELT v.1, MILD a., Old Icelandic melr sandbank, bentgrass).

All the major Germanic languages except English have a derivative verb with the sense "grind", as Middle Dutch malen (Dutch malen), Old Saxon malan (Middle Low German mālen, mēlen), Old High German malan (Middle High German malen, maln, German mahlen), Old Icelandic mala (Icelandic mala), Old Swedish mala (Swedish mala), Danish male, Norwegian male, Gothic malan; cf. similar forms in Slavonic and Baltic languages, as Old Church Slavonic mlěti, Russian molot', Bulgarian melja, Lithuanian malti, Old Irish melim, and classical Latin molere and ēmolere.]


So I didn't make this up, but got it from trained linguists who generally know their etymology. Does the "blin" part sound unlikely to you? Maybe it does, for two reasons: (1) pancakes seem unrelated to milling, and (2) "blin" has B instead of an M, which all those other related words have.

But, as to (1), a pancake is made of flour -- and in fact I would guess that pancakes, like flatbreads, might be the main product made from flour in traditional cultures. So the meaning is close enough, in my book, to make that plausible.

And, as to (2), the M-to-B switch is not uncommon in word origins. Consider, for example, sabato/sabado/shabbat, for Saturday/Sabbath, becoming "samedi" in French. I hear that the same thing happens in other languages too, like Japanese and Manx. It's called nasalization.

The moral: Once you go far enough in etymology, you get some weird stuff. That doesn't mean it's incorrect.
12.23.2006 9:00pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Oh yes, note also that the OED is tentative and says the connection with "blin" is merely "probable."
12.23.2006 9:02pm