Monday, 1 February 2016

Poleaxe not Pollax

There is a common repeated webtruth that "Poleaxe" is not the correct spelling, but a 19th century erroneous change, and that the correct spelling is "Pollax".

For example, the Wikipedia entry is "Pollax" and it states:

The poleaxe in that spelling[citation needed], refers to an animal culling device of similar appearance. It was swung so the spike struck the animal, normally cattle, in the forehead. Hence also the phrase 'to be poleaxed' referring to being stunned. This term does not seem to appear before the 19th century.

This is in direct contradiction to the Oxford English Dictionary:

[ME. pollaxpolax, Sc. powax = MDu. polaexpollaex, MLG. and LG. polexepollexe (whence MSw. 15th c. polyxepulyxe, MDa. polöxe), f. polPOLL n.1, Sc. pow, MDu., MLG. pollepol head + AXE: cf. MDu. polhamer = poll-hammer, also a weapon of war. It does not appear whether the combination denoted an axe with a special kind of head, or one for cutting off or splitting the head of an enemy. In the 16th c. the word began to be written by some pole-axe (which after 1625 became the usual spelling), as if an axe upon a pole or long handle. This may have been connected with the rise of sense 2. Similarly, mod.Sw. pålyxa and Westphalian dial. pålexe have their first element = pole. Sense 3 may be a substitute for the earlier bole-axe, which was applied to a butcher's axe.]
It intrigued me as to whether one could find corroborating proof that it had indeed changed from pollax / polax to poleaxe during the period 1500-1625.

The Middle English Spelling
In Middle English, the spelling was Polax, as can be seen from these lines in Chaucer from The Knight's Tale:
No man therfore, up peyne of los of lyf,
No maner shot, ne polax, ne short knyf
Into the lystes sende, ne thider brynge.
This is not a primary resource however, so I looked for scans of early editions, and I found:

This is from an online scanned copy of The Canterbury Tales - William Caxton's printed edition (the first such) from 1478. There is no single authoritative version of Chaucer, and there are many differences between versions. This source has "pollax" instead of "polax", but also has many other changes in these three lines, for example "los of lyf" to "losyng his lif" which shows the sheer variety of spellings at this time.

Hence it is reasonable to accept that in Middle English the word could be "pollax" or "polax".

The Modern Spelling
If one is looking for the spelling of a word, where else would you look other than a dictionary?

The first edition of Samuel Johnson's "Dictionary of the English Language" (1755) is also rather handily scanned and online, and here we find:

So by 1755 the spelling "Poleaxe" was the accepted one in the dictionary. Note that in the intervening 277 years the spelling has almost entirely changed from the odd Middle English spellings (such as knyf for knife) into modern spellings.  We cannot tell whether the spelling changed from "Polax" to "Poleaxe" which made them think that it meant "Pole" + "Axe", or whether the belief that it was "Pole" + "Axe" caused them to change their spelling. What we do know is that it is not a recent change by the Victorians.

Johnson helpfully cites sources for his words, and here gives a quote from Dryden. This is from John Dryden's poem "Palamon and Arcite", a reworking of The Knight's Tale, published in "Fables, ancient and Modern" in 1700. You'd expect Johnson to have preserved the spelling, but when we look on line for a scanned copy of this book we find:

So in the original from 1700 it is Poleax (spelling variant #4!!). There are also later printings of this poem which change it to Poleaxe, so perhaps Johnson was referring to them. Note also the reference to "Coat-armour, imitating Scale"!

Since "Palamon and Arcite" was a retelling of The Knight's Tale it is perhaps no surprise that at the end of the book Dryden gives Chaucer's original text, and it has the old spelling "polax":

(Though note knyf has changed to knife). Hence we have now seen that the spelling "poleax" was in use by 1700, and with full knowledge that this was a change of spelling from middle english. During this period English saw a major upheaval, changing from Middle English into something very close to the English of today, and this change of spelling was just one of many changes.

According to The Oxford English Dictionary we can date this introduction of the "e" in the middle as starting in the 16th century and becoming the usual spelling after 1625.

The Rebutal
There are several possible grounds by which one might claim that Pollax is the correct spelling - let's examine them one at a time.

Poleaxe is an incorrect spelling
Any spelling listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is "correct". Poleaxe is spelled this way in the OED, so cannot be called incorrect.

Poleaxe is a modern spelling
The OED dates it back to the 16th century, and we've seen the "e" in the middle in a document from 1700, it is most definitely NOT a modern spelling

Poleaxe is an anachronstic spelling  - it post dates the period of the weapon
The weapon called the pollax/poleaxe was in use roughly from 1300-1700. Thus for nearly half this period "poleaxe" was a normal spelling, and it was the usual spelling for the last 75 years of this period.

Pollax is the original spelling, and therefore correct
By this argument we should use "knyf" for knife. We cannot replace English spellings with those from Middle English.

Poleaxe is etymologically incorrect and misleading
Many words are equally so. "Shamefaced" is a corruption, it comes from Middle English scamfæst, which is scam ("shame") + fæst ("fast"). So it *should* be shamefast. The change from "fast" to "faced" changes the meaning to imply showing guilt on the face. This does not mean we should change the meaning of Shamefaced in the dictionary to match the old meaning, nor should we change its spelling.

So it will be Poleaxe in Explore ;-)

1 comment:

  1. I'm happy with your analysis. Besides pollax sounds too much like poll tax, which is a weapon of a different sort.