Loaf of bread with slice missing in a wicker basket

The importance of bread in society: the etymology of Lord

In listening to The History of the English Language, 2nd Edition by Seth Lerer (Lecture 8), I came across an interesting word etymology which foodies and particularly bread fans will appreciate.

Dr. Lerer was talking about the compression of syllables at the border of Old English and Middle English circa 1100 which occurred in such terms as hlaf weard, the warden (or guardian) of the loaf.

Who is the guardian of the loaf? The hlfaf weard << The hlaweard << the laweard << the lord. This is the etymology of the word 'lord'. Lord is the guardian of the bread, the mete-er out of bread in a cereal society.

An interesting linguistic change that tells us a lot about power, structure, religion, and society surrounding bread of the time. I suppose one could also look at Christian traditions of the time which looked at the transubstantiation of the symbolic bread of the Last Supper which is ritually turned into the body of Christ–Christ, our lord.

One can’t help noting the slang use of the word “bread” to mean “money”. Perhaps it’s time to go back and re-visit Jeremy Cherfas’ excellent podcast series Our Daily Bread?

Featured image: Bread flickr photo by adactio shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

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Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

2 thoughts on “The importance of bread in society: the etymology of Lord”

  1. In thinking about this further, I can’t help but note that the word Christ stems from Old English Crīst, from Latin Christus, from Greek Khristos, a noun use of an adjective meaning ‘anointed’, from khriein ‘anoint’, translating Hebrew māšīaḥ ‘Messiah’. Now I can’t help thinking that Christ, the lord really means, ‘the anointed bread guardian’.

    And what have we traditionally anointed with? Olive oil! So, perhaps communion should come with olive oil for dipping our bread? Now I’m going to have trouble keeping a straight face all the way through the holiday season…

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