Mind your language

We’ve been saying ‘wrap up warm’ for a thousand years

10 March 2018

9:00 AM

10 March 2018

9:00 AM

In June 1873, Oswald Cockayne shot himself. He was in a state of melancholy, having been dismissed by King’s College School, after 32 years’ service, for discussing matters avoided by other masters when they appeared in Greek and Latin passages, ‘in direct opposition to the feeling of the age’. No improper acts had occurred.

Cockayne was a clergyman and a pioneer philologist whose pupils included the great W.W. Skeat and Henry Sweet. His father’s name was Cockin. Perhaps he had changed the spelling to avoid offending the ‘feeling of the age’. The word cocaine was not invented until 1874. But the Land of Cockayne was a medieval fantasy world of pleasure.


Cockayne, as an early amateur of philology, had his weaknesses, yet his edition of a 10th-century manuscript is still quoted more than 150 years after it was published in 1865. He gave it the title Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft. Leechdom is ‘medicine’, but I don’t know that starcraft was ever used for ‘astronomy’ in Anglo-Saxon England, and wortcunning for ‘knowledge of herbs’ seems to be his invention. You can see the manuscript online, nicely written in a square minuscule: just search for British Library Royal MS 12 D.

Anyway, in the Oxford English Dictionary one quotation from his edition is Bewreoh the wearme. Bewreoh means ‘wrap up’, and the is ‘thee’. So we have been saying ‘Wrap up warm’ for a thousand years.

Every time the weather man or woman says ‘Wrap up warm’, my husband calls out ‘Sleep tight’. When it was cold a week ago, he called out quite often. Most wives would have found it annoying. Not I. He was right to notice the infantilisation: we must be told to button up our overcoats when the wind is free. Secondly he was right to imply (if he meant to) that both warm and tight in those contexts are adverbs. It is no crime to say ‘Sleep tight’, ‘Sit tight’, or ‘Wrap up warm’. The same applies to loud and clear, thick and fast. It can be raining hard or blowing hot and cold. I’ve mentioned before (21 July 2012) that adverbs need not end in ly. Don’t shout at weather forecasters on that account.

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