02 January 2007

An Oaf Is an Elf's Embarrassing Relative

From Michael Quinion's most excellent World Wide Words website comes this eye-opening article about the origin of the word "oaf":

There's an intimate connection between oafs and elves. In ancient legend, elves weren't the noble creatures portrayed in Tolkien's stories but powerful and dangerous supernatural beings more likely to harm humans than to help them.

Their name says so: it comes from an ancient Germanic term for a nightmare, a close relative of the first element of the modern German "Albdruck" with the same sense. Among other nasty habits, elves were thought to bring humans bad dreams and to steal their children, leaving changelings in their place.

It's from that belief that "oaf" first appeared in English, in the seventeenth century. Originally an oaf was an elf's child, one that had been left in a poor exchange for a stolen human one. In popular superstition, such children were assumed to be ugly or stupid. The first forms to appear were "ouphe" and "auf", the former turning up several times in Shakespeare's plays, though he used it to mean an elf or goblin. "Auf" appears in 1621 in the Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton: "A very monster, an aufe imperfect".

By the end of the seventeenth century it had settled to the modern spelling and "oaf" had moved to mean "idiot child" or "halfwit", then later took on the senses of a large and clumsy or a rude and boorish man.
But "Oh, you great clumsy elf!" doesn't have the same ring, does it?

1 comment:

Camille said...

I am looking forward to directing my daughters' attention to this post. How interesting. Thanks for sharing th is.