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.
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.
It seems that the word describes itself; eldritch indeed.