Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Guardian of the Loaf

Language is alive. Words simplify themselves over time and meanings change. Four centuries ago, for example, the word let meant to forbid. Today, it means just the opposite. Not many years ago, when a young person said someone looked bad, the individual meant someone looked good. The word tough used to mean hardened and mean and I think it means that again today. But, when I was a teenager, there was a period of time in which tough was used to describe a beautiful girl, as in, “You’re going out with her? Man oh man, she’s tough!” That didn’t mean she was hardened and mean, but that she was a knockout.

The word “lord” comes from the Anglo-Saxon compound word hlafweard, which means guardian of the loaf. Hlaf became loaf and weard became warden or guardian. Warden and guardian are variations of weard. So a lord is a loaf guardian. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the changes in spelling of hlafweard, thereby showing the gradual changes in pronunciation: from hlafweard to lafweard to laward to lord. We still hear people in our part of the country pronouncing it laward. I say it that way myself when I am relaxed and talking to people I don’t need to impress by measuring up.

Back in pre-Roman Anglo-Saxon culture, the hlafweard was the man who owned and distributed the bread at meals or banquets. Interestingly, the word lady comes from an Anglo-Saxon form that means loaf dough—she was the one who made the bread for the hlafweard to distribute at meals. It is possible that these Germanic people had no plates until the French victory in 1066 introduced them. Before that, Anglo-Saxons probably ate off of bread. The lady would slop a dipper full of stew on the hunks of bread the lord had distributed around the board (as in room and board) and they had at it.

Maybe in 1611 when the King James or “Authorized” version of the Bible was printed, the word “lord” still had a little of this bread distribution meaning left in it. Whether it did or not, it was the perfect choice for a title for Jesus. The word itself contains a picture of the Lord distributing bread at that venerable supper, where the whole meaning of Passover changed forever for so many. The Lord himself was designated as the bread that came down from heaven, thus associating himself with the manna that fed the wandering Hebrews so many years before. The institution of the Holy Communion or Lord’s Supper is the central sacrament in Christianity, because the gospels report that Christ admonished his followers to eat the bread and take the cup in remembrance of him. And the fact that some faiths call Jesus’mother Our Lady is linguistically interesting considering the fact that the word lady designates the one who makes the bread, as I reported earlier.

So, as Christians remember the Lord at his table some 2,000 years after the initial event, many understand on a deep level that he remains the guardian of the loaf. And, miraculously, he is not only the one who distributes it, he is it—the bread that came down from heaven. He is simultaneously the guardian and the guarded.

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