Old English dictionaries: a guide for the mildly perplexed

I started writing this with the idea that it might be useful to share with the members of my Old English reading group. I had found that some people were keen to read Old English texts but – even if they already had a fair amount of experience doing so – were unfamiliar with the ins and outs of using dictionaries of Old English. This tallied with my own experience of learning Old English in a classroom; we were taught a lot about Old English, but relatively little about the resources that we were using to study it. This meant that, when we moved from translating passages in textbooks to reading editions, a lot of time and energy was being spent on wrestling information out of the dictionary.

This post represents my personal experiences and preferences. It’s also a work in progress; I’ve never tried to explain before the exact process I go through when looking up an Old English word. If you find something that is incorrect or unclear, please get in touch with me and let me know how I could make this more useful!

Before I start

What this is not: a crash course in Old English, a beginner’s guide to grammatical terminology.

What this is: some suggestions (based on personal experience) that might make your life a bit easier the next time you come across an unfamiliar Old English word and want to look up what it means.

The problem

As a (relative) beginner to reading Old English, a lot of the texts you come across will be provided with convenient glossaries. Because these glossaries are designed to be used with the particular text you’re reading, they don’t usually cause much confusion; you can generally trust them to contain all the words you need to know, in the spellings and senses found in the text. But, at some point, you’ll come across a text with no glossary, forcing you to consult a dictionary instead. There are several challenges here:

  • Which is the best dictionary to use, and where do you find it?
  • How do you find the word you’re looking for in the dictionary? Unlike a glossary, the dictionary might not list a word in the particular spelling used in your text.
  • How do you interpret the entry? Some parts of some Old English dictionaries can be downright cryptic and occasionally misleading.

Choosing a dictionary

Most people I know tend to fall back on the digital Bosworth-Toller dictionary (named after its editors, Joseph Bosworth and Thomas Northcote Toller), which is available here: http://bosworth.ff.cuni.cz/ It’s free, available online, and is the fullest complete dictionary of Old English available. You could of course use a paper copy, and I’ll include a few notes about things to bear in mind if you do this, but for most purposes I find the online version far easier to use.

The Bosworth-Toller website has now been updated and can be found at https://bosworthtoller.com/; most of my comments here will still hold, though there will be some slight differences.

Fewer people seem to be in the habit of using the Dictionary of Old English, or DOE. This is understandable; it requires logging in, and (crucially) it’s a work in progress that at the moment only covers the letters A to I. Despite these downsides, it is a delight to use, and far more informative and accurate than Bosworth-Toller. For everything beyond very quick lookups, I urge you to make the DOE your first port of call for looking up Old English words. If you are a member of a university, you may well have institutional access: check your library catalogue. If not, you are entitled to a limited number of free logins per year. See the information here: https://www.doe.utoronto.ca/store/doc.php

Other dictionaries are available, but Bosworth-Toller and the DOE between them will do most of what you need, and they’re the two it’s most useful to learn how to navigate. One further general-purpose Old English dictionary it may be handy to know about is the Clark Hall dictionary (look for the fourth edition, revised by Meritt. It’s a nice portable dictionary (unlike the doorstop that is Bosworth-Toller) that works well if you like having a paper copy on hand. It’s not as detailed as either Bosworth-Toller or the DOE, but I generally find it fairly intuitive to use. Follow the same basic principles for looking up words that I discuss for Bosworth-Toller, and Clark Hall shouldn’t give you too much trouble.

Finding your word

First, what letter does the word start with? (Ignore for the moment the ge- prefix, if there is one; treat, for instance, gefrignan as though it began with F. More on this later.) If it is A, Æ, B, C, D, E, F, G, H or I, you’re in luck; you can use the DOE! (There are a few other odd cases where a DOE lookup might still be useful, if your word is an odd spelling that could be re-spelt to begin with a letter A to I. I’ll talk about odd spellings in more detail when I come to Bosworth-Toller.) For anything after I in the alphabet (including Ð and Þ), you will need to use Bosworth-Toller.

Finding a word in the DOE

So, your word begins with a letter A-I. First, go to the DOE website and log in. You should see something like this:


From the drop-down menu (where it says ‘headword’ on the screenshot), select ‘attested spelling’. This means that, rather than searching the normalised dictionary headwords (verbs in the infinitive, nouns in the nominative singular, spellings normalised), you will be searching a list of word forms as they actually appear in real Old English texts. All you need to do is type the word into the search bar as it appears in your text, and you will automatically be directed to the right dictionary entry. Of course, if the form that you are searching for is ambiguous – it could belong to more than one distinct entry in the dictionary – the search will bring up all the possible relevant entries, and you’ll need to look at all of them.

And, for the DOE, that’s honestly all you need to do to find a word. There are plenty of other ways you can search this dictionary, but for our purposes, this easiest approach.

Finding a word in Bosworth-Toller

If the word you’re looking for isn’t in the DOE then you’ll need to use Bosworth-Toller. Unlike the DOE, Bosworth-Toller only lists words in their normalised headword form, so to look up a word, you’ll need to be able to deduce (or guess) this form. Sadly, there is no magic shortcut here; the more you learn the declension and conjugation patterns of Old English, the easier it will be. Nevertheless, a few tips:

  • Start with the obvious: from its form and its function in the sentence, you will generally be able to tell whether your word is a verb/noun/etc. Other things may also jump out; for example, if you have something that from context you think should be a past tense verb, but it doesn’t have the characteristic t/d/ð/þ in its ending, it’s probably a strong verb, so in that case you’ll want to be aware of the fact that strong verbs also change their vowels.
  • If you’re stuck, the web version of Bosworth-Toller has an auto-complete function in its search. You might get somewhere by typing the beginning of the word into the search box and looking through its suggestions. (This can be especially useful for cases like not being sure if the infinitive of a verb is in -an or -ian.) See the screenshot below for an example.

BT screenshot

  • If you’re really stuck, you can always try the advanced search feature. Type your word in the form it appears in the text into the ‘find entry that contains…’ search box. Unlike the DOE, Bosworth-Toller doesn’t list all the forms in which a word appears in Old English texts, but it does contain a certain number of example quotations. There’s always a chance that your word form – perhaps even the exact sentence you’re reading – has been quoted in an entry. If that’s the case, this search will find it. Of course, the quotation may have been included to illustrate a different word from the one you’re interested in, but even in these cases, Bosworth-Toller occasionally gives a translation of the whole quotation, so it’s still worth a try.

The biggest challenge when looking up words in Bosworth-Toller is dealing with what I’m going to call odd spellings: words that don’t follow the nice, neat, regularised spelling rules you see in textbooks and so on. Sometimes, Bosworth-Toller will have a separate entry for these odd spellings, or an entry that redirects you to the more standard spelling. However, you can’t always rely on this. If you can’t immediately find the word you’re looking for in Bosworth-Toller, it may well be the time to apply a bit of odd spelling guesswork. You’ll get better with practice, but here are a few rules of thumb:

  • If there is a k anywhere in your word, change it to c when searching.
  • Keep an eye out for the suffix -ness. It crops up fairly often and in Bosworth-Toller is variously spelled -ness, -nes, -nis, -niss, -nys and -nyss. The autocomplete function of the search tool is your friend here, but in some cases it may be easier to try manually typing in the different spellings.
  • In general, vowels are going to be the source of most spelling variation you come across. As the example of -ness shows, unstressed vowels are particularly likely to appear in different spellings, but stressed vowels can vary as well. Watch out especially for ie/i/y and (before n or m) for a/o.
  • Remember that the perfectly regular textbook spellings of Old English are an editorial invention. Real manuscripts contain more variation than this, and reflect different dialects of Old English spoken at different times and in different places. (For a little bit more detail on this, and some notes on other common variant spellings, Appendix 1 of this webpage is a good starting point: https://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/stella/apps/web/eoe/about/)
  • Don’t expect Bosworth-Toller to be consistent in how it records these odd spellings; it’s a bit of a mess!

Interpreting a dictionary entry

Once you’ve located the appropriate entry in a dictionary, you still need to know how to interpret it to get the information you need. Some of this is a matter of general dictionary skills and common sense; in other cases, you may find it useful to know something about the particular quirks of the dictionary you’re using.

General points

  • Check the part of speech (noun, verb, adjective etc.); if it’s not what you were expecting from the context of your sentence, something might have gone wrong in the looking up stage. (Be aware, though, that it’s not terribly uncommon to find adjectives being used as nouns – e.g. an adjective meaning ‘brave’ used on its own to mean ‘brave person’. Don’t be put off by this.)
  • Similarly, check to see whether the headword you’re looking at could realistically appear in the form you’ve found in your reading. If you’ve followed my guidelines for DOE lookups using the attested spellings field, this should be the case as a matter of course. I have discussed below how you can work out likely inflections for a Bosworth-Toller headword. Whether you’re using the DOE or Bosworth-Toller, you will also want to check that the inflection you think you’re dealing with matches what you think would fit in the sentence you’re reading.
  • Don’t just read the first definition given; one dictionary entry may contain multiple senses for a word, some closely related and others more loosely. Look at them all to decide which makes most sense for the text you’re reading.
  • Make use of the example quotations. They show how the word is used in real Old English texts – perhaps even the text you’re reading. Quotations can help clarify the definition, give an idea of the kinds of texts in which a word tends to appear (e.g. poetry, laws, medical texts), and show which words or syntactic constructions are likely to appear around it. All of this information can give you an idea of whether you’re on the right track with your interpretation.
  • Vowel length: both the DOE and Bosworth-Toller mark vowel length. The DOE uses macrons on long vowels, while Bosworth-Toller uses acute accents. This is just a matter of different conventions; there is no other difference, and vowel length may or may not be marked in the text you are reading.

Interpreting the DOE

A DOE entry contains a lot of information, much of it rather specialised. For an overview of all the different parts of an entry, select the ‘Docs’ tab and choose ‘entry format’. Things that are likely to be useful to you:

  • At the beginning of the entry, just under the headword, you will be told the part of speech, the class of a noun or verb, and the gender of a noun. This information is abbreviated, so may be a little cryptic at first glance, but it’s useful to know.
  • The section of ‘attested spellings’ is arranged in a parsed order. This means that you should be able to get information from it about inflection patterns; unfortunately, it is rather tricky to read. The basic principle is that, for each ‘cell’ in a table of inflections, all the attested forms are listed, beginning with the most ‘regular’ and moving to the oddest. Very similar spellings are separated with commas, while more significant spelling differences (involving a major vowel change) are separated with |. Different ‘cells’ of the ‘table’ are separated with ||. However, if no evidence survives for a certain cell of the table (say, for example, we have no texts in which a certain noun is used in the genitive singular), the list of attested spellings will skip right over this and go to the next ‘cell’. As none of the ‘cells’ are labelled, working out which spellings correspond to which part of the paradigm can hence be rather confusing. Unless you’re especially confident, it may be easier to ignore this information and just work out the prototypical inflection patterns of a word by referring to the information about its class and applying the patterns found in a standard Old English grammar.
  • The DOE doesn’t supply translations for its example quotations. However, sometimes a quotation will be followed by a short passage/phrase in Latin; this generally represents the Latin text of which the Old English is a translation. That translation may not be exact, but if you know Latin, it can be a useful way of getting a better understanding of what the Old English means.

Interpreting Bosworth-Toller

Once again, using Bosworth-Toller requires a little more ingenuity. It doesn’t provide as much information as the DOE, so in that sense it’s sometimes easier to understand an entry at a glance, but it’s more likely to be outright cryptic or misleading.

  • Possibly the most important thing to remember here is that the online Bosworth-Toller is a digitised version of a paper dictionary, and – although the web layout aims to represent the structure of entries as they were originally written – if an entry looks particularly odd, it’s possible that you’re dealing with a minor error in the digitisation. If something looks very strange, select ‘show/hide this scanned page’ to see the original print layout.
  • It is also very important to remember that the online Bosworth-Toller brings together information from two different publications: the original main dictionary, and a later supplement to the dictionary, which added some entries and revised others. At the bottom of an entry in the online version, it should tell you whether you are looking at an entry from the main dictionary or the supplement, and – if a word is entered in both the main dictionary and the supplement – it will give you a link to the corresponding entry in the other. It’s worthwhile checking both; the supplement entries often correct mistakes in the main dictionary, but sometimes these corrections only make sense if you read them alongside the entry that’s being corrected.
  • Bosworth-Toller gives abbreviated information about the inflection patterns of a word just after the headword; sometimes principal parts etc. will be written out in full, but sometimes just an ending is given and you will have to extrapolate. For example, “BÁN baan, es; bán; n.” means that the noun bān, ‘bone’, can also be spelt baan in the nominative singular, has the genitive singular form bānes and the nominative plural form bān, and is neuter.
  • Beware Latin definitions! When Bosworth-Toller gives a Latin definition for an Old English word, this sometimes means that the latter was used as a translation of the former in a translation of a Latin text, a glossary, etc. Sometimes, however, the Latin is just a traditional definition of the Old English word, first added by 17th/18th-century scholars. This is unlikely to cause significant problems if all you’re trying to do is understand an Old English text, but it’s worth bearing in mind.
  • Treat with caution any entry marked ‘Lye’ or ‘Som.’ that doesn’t include a quotation or list any other sources; this is a sign that Bosworth didn’t check this entry against an actual edition of an Old English text, so it’s more likely to be inaccurate. Usually, these entries will have an updated version in the supplement.

A final note

I hope these guidelines make it a little easier to find your way around using Old English dictionaries when reading or translating. Some of them are common-sense; those that aren’t often become second nature with a bit of practice. Don’t be put off too much by my various caveats here; some of the tricky situations I’ve described will only come up very rarely in the general course of things. That said, if you can’t find a word, don’t despair; it’s much more likely that it’s recorded in the dictionaries, but in a way you didn’t expect, than that it’s a complete mystery.

If you’re interested in investigating other things about the vocabulary of Old English, rather than just looking up words for a translation, there are other features of Old English dictionaries it’s worth becoming familiar with, and other resources you might find useful (the Dictionary of Old English Corpus, the Oxford English Dictionary, the Thesaurus of Old English, etc.) For basic purposes, though, this overview should have covered the most important things to bear in mind.

3 thoughts on “Old English dictionaries: a guide for the mildly perplexed

  1. What a lovely read! You’ve managed to communicate some of both the magic and toil of looking up Old English words! Question: Are there any analytic concordances or word tables for OE where you can look up an inflected/conjugated form and be told its normalized form? I’ve worked with tools like those when consulting Koine Greek lexicons and dictionaries.


    • Thank you! As far as I’m aware, the DOE’s attested spellings search is itself the best way of getting a normalised form, and of course it’s not yet complete, so it leaves you in the lurch for the second half of the alphabet. Old English has a lot of orthographical variation, and even when modern scholarship normalises texts, there isn’t perfect agreement on what the standard for that normalisation should be. So that makes the task a tricky one. Combine that with the small number of people learning Old English (when compared with Latin or, I presume, Greek) and the relative simplicity of the inflectional system, and I think there’s just not much perceived efficiency gain in automating it rather than doing it by hand.
      That said, there has been very interesting work done on automatic lemmatisation of Old English by the Nerthus Project (https://www.nerthusproject.com/), including identifying some inflected forms missed by the DOE.


  2. Pingback: Decoding abbreviations: examples from Bosworth-Toller | Rachel A Fletcher

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