eldritch /’ɛldɹɪtʃ/

Like most people, there are times when I find myself thinking of things that seem to pop out of nowhere. In this case, my mind drifted back to a novel I read many years ao by Philip K. Dick called The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. The name “Palmer” and the link to “stigmata” seems fair enough but I was unfamiliar with the word eldritch, assuming at the time that is merely a name. Hard as it might seem to believe, there was a time when I was younger that language didn’t have the same fascination for me – although reading did. So I simply enjoyed the book for what it was and moved on.

Philip K. Dick book

Philip K. Dick book

The OED defines the word as meaning “weird, ghostly, unnatural, frightful, hideous.” So, a spooky, eerie sort of word. The Scottish poet, William Dunbar (1460-1520), used it on his 1508 poem The Golden Targe;

“There was Pluto, the elrich incubus,
In cloke of grene – his court usit no sable”

At around the same time in Scotland, Bishop Gavin Douglas (1474–1522) was working on a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, the Scottish version of which became known as the Eneados. At one point her writes, “Vgsum to heir was hir wyld elriche screik.”

Its status as a Scottish word continued with its use by other Caledonian writers such as William Stewart () in his Buik of the Croniclis of Scotland, where it appears as eldritche, and by Robert Burns’ (1759 – 1796) On The Late Captain Grose’s Peregrinations Thro’ Scotland (1789) in the sentence;

“By some auld, houlet-haunted biggin,
Or kirk deserted by its riggin,
It’s ten to ane ye’ll find him snug in
Some eldritch part,
Wi’ deils, they say, Lord save’s! colleaguin
At some black art.”

At this point, the spelling settled down to the current form of eldritch. Prior to this, other variants included alriche, elraige, and eltrich.

The derivation is thought to be from the Old English ælf-rice, which means “elf” and “sphere of influence or domain,” thus describing an elvish domain or supernatural associations. However, there is some (academic) debate still going on. In 2007, at an annual conference on Scottish Language, Alric Hall gave a paper entitled The etymology and meanings of eldritch, and argues that  it “is unlikely etymologically to contain elf-, but *alja-, meaning ‘foreign, strange’, deriving from Old English *æl-rīce~el-rīce.”

al-, el-, or elf-, the word scores low on ghits (672,000), of which a sizable proportion refer to people’s surnames or company names. And an image search turns up lots of pictures of characters from games, comics, or virtual worlds.

Eldritch Knight of Deriahn

Eldritch Knight of Deriahn

It seems that the word describes itself; eldritch indeed.



Filed under Etymology

2 responses to “eldritch /’ɛldɹɪtʃ/

  1. Hey ho! Just bumped into this post by chance and thought I’d note for the record that I never gave a conference paper on _eldritch_, but I did publish an article on it: ‘The Etymology and Meanings of Eldritch’, Scottish Language, 26 (2007), 16-22. Online at http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/4726/. Thanks for mentioning the work though!

    • Thanks for the clarification, Alric! I found your paper while I was researching the word and for some reason thought it was presented at a conference. Still, it was a lucky find for me and I enjoyed it immensely. For whatever unconscious reason, “eldritch” is one of those words that I’ve liked – and it’s always odd to talk about “liking” a word in the same way you might “like” a book, or a song, or a food etc. I wasn’t aware of the “Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue” so that was another learning experience for me, and I do love to find new sources. All the best!

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