Ceorl: What’s in a Word?

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When we hear the word churl today, we think of an oaf or a loathsome person, one who has little education or manners. The word is so often used with that connotation that it is tempting to conclude that said connotation was with the word from the beginning. Such is not so.

The word churl comes from the Germanic ceorl. (Note the slightly different spelling). This word meant an independent peasant landowner. Many ceorls even owned slaves. But, they were still peasants.

Where are we? We’re in Anglo-Saxon England, of course, in the centuries between the Roman abdication and the Viking invasions. This arena had several social classes, one of which was the ceorl.

The social classes of these Germanic tribes were based on the wergild, or how much money you would be paid if a member of your family was killed by a neighboring tribe. It seems odd to us today, but that was their way of doing things. The higher your wergild, the higher your status.

Now the ceorls didn’t have the wergild to call their own, so they were of a lesser social standing. This meant, of course, that they were looked down on by the people who were in the social classes above them. The upper crust of the Anglo-Saxon society (the nobles and such) took to speaking the word ceorl with disdain. (Ceorls were peasants, remember.) This practice naturally progressed from describing not only the ceorls themselves but also others whom the nobles disdained. Soon, to be called a ceorl was not so much a social marker as a measure of distaste.

The word has come to down us in English (“the language of the Angles”) as churl, most likely because the makers of our current spellings wanted to emphasize the h sound and so changed the e to h. Of greater things are kingdoms made.