Hale and Haul

By Maeve Maddox

In my current reading of Beowulf, I’ve got to the part where the dragon bites Beowulf in the neck. The word translated as neck is heals. For some reason, the expression “to be haled off to prison” came to my mind. Could it be, I wondered, that the expression came from grabbing the felon’s neck and dragging him away?

No. My imaginative leap was all wrong. That’s how folk etymologies get started!

Old English had a word corresponding to our word neck: hnecca, “neck, back of the neck.” It was not commonly used in OE, but in the later language lost the h and displaced heals as the common word for that part of the anatomy.

The verb hale, “drag, summon,” came into English about 1200, from Old French haler, “to pull.” The pronunciation changed in the 13th century and the spelling eventually became haul. Now felons are hauled off to prison.

haul: trans. To pull or draw with force or violence; to drag, tug (esp. in nautical language). –OED

The greeting hail, pronounced the same as hale, comes from Old Norse heill, “health, prosperity, good luck.” In OE, the greeting was waes haeil, “be healthy. The phrase became shortened to hailse, which eventually became hail.

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7 Responses to “Hale and Haul”

  • Frode Mindrebø

    The Norwegian word for ‘neck’ is ‘hals’ – a coincidence?

  • phil dragonetti

    Quote from Todays DWT:
    ‘”The greeting hail, pronounced the same as hale,
    comes from Old Norse heill, “health, prosperity, good luck.
    In OE, the greeting was waes haeil, “be healthy. ”

    The word was apparently retained in modern German in the chant
    ” Sieg, Heil”—which means
    ‘Sieg = Victory, and Heil = “health, prosperity, good luck.”

  • Stephen Buck

    “…the dragon bites Beowulf in the neck. The word translated as neck is heals. ”

    What is the original (untranslated) word for neck?

  • Maeve

    Stephen,
    “heals.” The untranslated word for neck is “heals.”

    “heals ealne ymbefeng,” literally, “neck all seized”

  • MILNEWS.ca

    Now I can guess where the term “hailing a cab” came from (based on “verb hale, “drag, summon,” “).

    Thanks for this!

  • book publisher

    “heals ealne ymbefeng,” literally, “neck all seized”

  • Steve

    “In OE, the greeting was waes haeil, ‘be healthy’.”

    This phrase has survived as “wassail”, originally the practice of visiting to bring good cheer, associated particularly with Christmas, but now more commonly meaning a spiced punch drink (which would have been served to those wassailing).

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