Decoding abbreviations: examples from Bosworth-Toller

Someone responded to my last post by saying that they found my blow-by-blow explanation of the Bosworth-Toller entry for bán especially useful. I hadn’t really thought seriously before about how off-putting the highly abbreviated grammatical information in Bosworth-Toller entries can be, even to people who already have some experience of reading Old English; this is an experiment in translating the conventional abbreviations into terms you might be familiar with from an Old English grammar.

This is essentially a series of worked examples for how to interpret the abbreviated grammatical information found just after the headword in Bosworth-Toller entries. Although I have tailored this specifically to the quirks of Bosworth-Toller entries, many of these observations refer to basic conventions that are used to give grammatical information in other dictionaries as well. This means that if you are a confident dictionary user, you will probably know a lot of this already; however, if this is the first time you have encountered these conventions, you will also be able to apply many of them when using other Old English dictionaries.

All of the following assumes that you have a fairly good grasp of the basic principles of Old English grammar and the terminology used to discuss it. You may also want to read this with a grammar (or the Old English Magic Sheet) to hand, so you can see how the information provided by Bosworth-Toller maps onto the full inflectional tables. If you are using the online Bosworth-Toller, it may also help to use the cross-references it provides to Wright’s Old English grammar (in the blue box at the top of many dictionary entries) – thank you to Ondřej Tichý for reminding me about this feature!


Without further ado:

Variant spellings

Immediately after the headword, a variant spelling (or spellings) may be given. You can usually recognise it because it doesn’t have a different ending, but differs from the headword in a vowel or consonant. For example:

Sometimes, if a word is a compound or has a prefix/suffix, only the part of the word in which the spelling variation occurs will be written out. For example:

  • ǽ-fæstnes -festnes, -nys, -ness, e;
    • ǽfæstnes can also be spelt ǽfestnes, ǽfæstnys, ǽfæstness
    • NB that this leaves it ambiguous as to whether we might expect to find the spellings ǽfestnys, ǽfestness; as it happens, in this case we can look in the DOE and find that both <æfestnesse> and <æfestnysse> are attested (in both of these instances, the final –e is because the word is attested in a case other than the nominative).
  • ó-web -wef, es;
    • óweb can also be spelt ówef

Note that, even when giving variant spellings, Bosworth-Toller is still dealing in hypotheticals, in the sense that it lists the variant spellings in their citation form (nominative singular for nouns and adjectives, infinitive for verbs) unless noted otherwise, regardless of whether there is surviving manuscript evidence of that spelling pattern being used in that number/gender/case form.



If the word is a noun, next, you may find one or two cryptic-looking letters such as ‘an’, ‘es’ or ‘e’. These tell you the genitive singular ending of the noun. For example:

Notice how, when the headword ends with a vowel, we knock that vowel off before applying the ending. Nama and minte become naman and mintan, not namaan and mintean.

Again, it is important to realise that just because Bosworth-Toller tells you what the genitive singular form of a noun is doesn’t mean that it exists in this form anywhere in the surviving corpus of Old English. Sometimes it is simply a reconstruction of what the form would have been if a record of it had survived.


A noun may also have other parts of its declension listed. They will generally be listed in the conventional order of nominative singular, accusative singular, genitive singular, dative singular, nominative plural, accusative plural, genitive plural, dative plural. The accusative may be listed after the dative instead. For example:

  • ád-fær acc; g.-færes; pl. nom. -faru; n.
    • ádfær has the form ádfær in the nominative and accusative singular, ádfæres in the genitive singular and ádfaru in the nominative plural
  • be-bod bi-bod, es ;  nom, acc.u, o ; gen. a ; dat. um; n
    • bebod has the form bebodes in the genitive singular, bebodu or bebodo in the nominative and accusative plural, beboda in the genitive plural and bebodum in the dative plural
  • bóc bóce? béc; d. béc; acc. bóc; pl. nom. acc. béc; g. bóca; d. bócum, bócan; f.
    • bóc has the form béc (and possibly also bóce) in the genitive singular, béc in the dative singular, bóc in the accusative singular, béc in the nominative and accusative plural, bóca in the genitive plural and bócum or bócan in the dative plural
  • bán-beorgas m.
    • bánbeorgas is only listed in Bosworth-Toller in the (nominative) plural form

Usually, other parts of the declension are only listed if they are in some way unusual, but this isn’t always the case. Likewise, if a noun usually takes a case ending that isn’t regular, this is generally indicated, but Bosworth-Toller isn’t completely reliable about this.


If a word is a noun, the last abbreviation in the string will almost always indicate its gender; the genders are:

  • = feminine
  • = masculine
  • = neuter

If you combine your knowledge of the noun’s gender with the information given about its case endings, in most cases you should be able to put together a whole declension table; follow the corresponding declension pattern in an Old English grammar or the Old English Magic Sheet. To take some (simple) examples from earlier:

  • nama an;
    • nama is a masculine noun with the genitive singular form naman; it must therefore follow the weak masculine pattern
  • minte an;
    • minte is a feminine noun with the genitive singular form mintan; it must therefore follow the weak feminine pattern. Note that, although it has the same –an ending for the genitive singular that we saw in nama, we know they don’t follow the same declension pattern because:
      • their genders are different
      • they have distinctive nominative singular forms; weak masculine nouns end in –a in the nominative singular (and never in –e), while weak feminine nouns end in –e in the nominative singular (and never in –a)
    • BÁN baan, es; bán; n.
      • bán is a neuter noun with the genitive singular form bánes and the nominative plural form bán; it must therefore follow the strong neuter pattern



It’s a little bit harder to make generalisations about the information that is given for verbs, but if you use the same approaches we used above when decoding noun entries and bear in mind what you know about the conjugation of OE verbs, most of it should be fairly easy to work out.

First of all, note that there is no characteristic abbreviation that marks all verb entries. However, you can recognise that it’s a verb from:

  • the form of the headword: verbs are listed in the dictionary in their (uninflected) infinitive form, which ends in –an
  • there may be abbreviations referring to different principal parts of the verb
  • some entries give examples of conjugated forms that include the pronoun, e.g. FRETAN ic frete

Generally speaking, the information given about verbs will follow the standard order you see in grammars: first person before second person before third person, singular before plural, present tense before past tense, indicative before subjunctive. Not all of this information will be given for every verb, of course.

Some examples:

  • FREMMAN to fremmanne; ic fremme, ðú fremest, he fremeþ, fremmaþ; p. fremede, fremde, pl. fremedon; impert. freme, pl. fremmaþ; subj. pres. fremme, pl. fremmen; pp. fremed.
    • In order, we have been given here:
      • fremman: uninflected infinitive (headword, in capitals)
      • to fremmanne: inflected infinitive (recognisable from the distinctive ‘to –anne’ form)
      • ic fremme: first person singular present indicative
      • ðú fremest: second person singular present indicative
      • he fremeþ: third person singular masculine present indicative (the feminine and neuter forms would of course only differ in the pronoun used)
      • fremmaþ: plural present indicative (marked with the abbreviation for plural – OE doesn’t make distinctions of person in the plural form of verbs)
      • fremede, fremde: first (also third) person singular past indicative (there are two possible forms fremede or fremde – the abbreviation indicates the past tense)
      • fremedon: plural past indicative
      • freme: imperative singular (marked with the abbreviation for imperative)
      • fremmaþ: imperative plural
      • fremme: present subjunctive singular (abbreviation for subjunctive)
      • fremmen: present subjunctive plural
      • fremed: past participle (abbreviation )
    • By matching this up with everything we know about OE verbs, we can deduce that we are looking at a weak verb of type one.
  • hǽlan de; pp. ed
    • This is also a type one weak verb, but we’ve been given much less information about it, and only the inflectional endings rather than full forms. (Knock off the –an of the infinitive before applying endings.)
    • The verb hǽlan has the first (and third) person singular past indicative form hǽlde and past participal hǽled.
  • lufian ode
    • This is a type two weak verb (note the characteristic –ian of the infinitive), and we have been given the first/third person singular past indicative form, which is lufode.
  • helpan healp, pl. hulpon; pp. holpen; v. trans. followed by gen. or dat.
    • We can immediately see that this is a strong verb because the stem vowel changes from one form to the next. (It is in fact a class III strong verb.) When it comes to strong verbs, we can expect to be given enough information to work out what the stem vowel would be for any conjugated form of the verb; traditionally, this information is extrapolated from the principal parts of the verb, which are the infinitive, third person singular present indicative, ‘first past’ (i.e. the first/third person singular past indicative), ‘second past’ (i.e. the plural past indicative), and past participle. (Technically, the vowel change you see in the thirst person singular present indicative comes about for a different reason from the others and is predictable, so it’s not always listed.) For more information on all this, read up on strong verbs in an OE grammar.
    • In this case, we have:
      • helpan: uninflected infinitive
      • healp: first past
      • hulpon: second past
      • holpen: past participle
    • We then get some extra information about how the verb behaves:
      • trans. means it’s a transitive verb, i.e. one that takes both a subject and an object, for instance I (subject) help him (object)
      • followed by gen. or dat. tells us the case taken by the object (the person being helped), namely genitive or dative

Preterite present verbs may be marked with the abbreviation prs. but are sometimes unmarked. There are only a few of them in Old English, so it’s probably easiest just to look them up in a grammar. But, in terms of recognising them when you’re using the dictionary, if the conjugations for the present tense look like a strong past tense verb and the conjugations for the past tense look like a weak past tense verb, you’re almost certainly dealing with a preterite present, regardless of whether it’s labelled.



Interpreting adjective entries in Bosworth-Toller is very simple. They are marked with the abbreviation adj. The headword gives you the strong nominative masculine singular form of the adjective; usually, this is all the information that is given (and all the information that you will need), but in a few entries you will find some additional material:

  • BLÆC m. n.blaces, f. blæcre; def. m. se blaca, f. n. blace: bleac; adj.
    • The adjective blæc has the form blaces in the masculine and neuter genitive (when strong) and blæcre in the feminine genitive (again, this only applies when it is strong; although this isn’t technically specified in the information given here, we can deduce it from what we know about the inflection of adjectives).
    • The abbreviation tells us that it can also be used as a noun (meaning ‘the black thing/person’); when it is, it would be blaca in the masculine nominative singular (Bosworth-Toller also provides the definite article se) or blace in the feminine and neuter nominative singular. Slightly confusingly, the spelling bleac is intended as a variant spelling of the (strong nominative masculine singular) adjective, despite its position; we can tell this from the fact that it’s preceded by a colon rather than just a comma, and can confirm it by looking up bleac as a headword.


Other parts of speech

Other abbreviations you may come across. Some of these are more consistently applied than others; if you think that something is a participle, conjunction, etc., but it isn’t marked as one, follow your instinct.

  • Adverbs:
  • Pronouns: no abbreviation used, but can be recognised from their meaning. Sometimes they are given all three gender markers ( f. n.), as in The headword is generally given in the masculine nominative singular.
  • Participles: may be marked with for a past participle and part., pres. part. or ptcpl. for a present participle
  • Conjunctions:
  • Interjections:
  • Prepositions: Frequent followed by an abbreviation indicating the case taken by the word following the preposition (usually dat. or d. for dative, or acc. for accusative).
  • Prefixes and suffixes: recognisable because they are followed or preceded by a dash.


Of course, all this only refers to the grammatical abbreviations found in Bosworth-Toller. If you start exploring entries in more depth, you’ll find that there are all sorts of other abbreviations, mainly referring to different source texts and reference works. Explaining all these would take more time than I have; if you’re curious or confused, the place to start is the ‘Explanation of References’ in the front matter of the dictionary. Good luck!

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