e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

The darkest hour and its poetry

I have recently discovered a new-to-me word that is really useful, probably to most people. It isn’t a new word, in fact it’s pretty old having been used, rarely, in Old English.

It is uhtceare and it means to lie in bed before dawn worrying.

Who hasn’t experienced this horrible, sleep-robbing feeling? Who hasn’t panicked during the darkest hour before dawn then got up after sunrise feeling a bit of an idiot for fussing over trivia?

If you haven’t, may you never go there. But if you have, you now have a name for it. Does having it named make it less scary?

The word is found in a longish Anglo-Saxon poem called The Wife’s Lament.

hæfde Ic uhtceare
hwær min leodfruma londes wære

I don’t know what this means but, given the ‘uhtceare’ it must have something to do with the lady’s worries.

The word is having something of a revival and getting more usage than it did in the lamenting wife’s days. Sauviloquy has a whole poem about

that wretched uhtceare

and so has Sohinee. There are probably others I haven’t found.

It isn’t certain yet if this word will become generally known, but it looks as if it has a chance. Maybe in future, instead of sharing dreams over the breakfast table we’ll share uhtceares.

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4 thoughts on “The darkest hour and its poetry

  1. Thank you for the acknowledgment you left on my blog. I agree: Every language, including that earlier version of our own, has beautiful, interesting and compelling words. We’re fortunate that English has let us adopt so many over the centuries.

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  2. Makes me wonder how it is pronounced. I suffered last night – wondering if a birthday card arrived in time. I dare not call and ask as it is the day the exam results come out and I don’t want to add extra stress. I guess I’ll find out eventually.
    I just lay there, too hot, looking at the ceiling and trying not to stay on my back in case I snored. I used to get up and make a lettuce sandwich but I’m off bread at the moment so I couldn’t even do that! I know what will happen – I’ll go to sleep during the news today. It happens after every meal.

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    • Thank you for your comment. Apparently it’s pronounced something like oot-chay-ara, though I’m not sure how certain that is and I bet there were many dialects in Anglo-Saxon days which would have produced variations.
      I sympathise with your horrible night; I hope both the card and the exam results turned out good.

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  3. I’d read it, but never focused on it in this way. Thank you.
    That line follows one in which the wife tells us “her lord” — i.e. her husband, although he’s also a leader of the people — has gone to sea. In your line, she wonders where “my lord may be on land?” viz., where is he? “Fruma” is a prince or leader; “leod” can also signify a lord or prince, but can also be the nation of people itself.
    The Old English here shows us the power of a more highly inflected version of our language that doesn’t require so many prepositions and helping words to convey the sense.
    Thanks again for noticing “uhtceare.” A similar word shows up in “The Seafarer,” who talks about enduring “bitre breostceare:” bitter breast-care (we’d say something like “heartache,” but I like that “bitter.”)
    BTW, that “c” would be a “ch” sound when spoken, sounding more like “oot-chiara.”

    Liked by 1 person

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