23 Fascinating Old English Phrases and Medieval Proverbs

Old English, the language of early medieval England, is rich with phrases and proverbs that offer a glimpse into the past. In this article, we explore 23 fun and fascinating examples of Old English, bringing history to life. Dive in to discover how these medieval words can still resonate today.

“Wæs þu hæl” – “Be in good health”

This common greeting would eventually transform into the word ‘Wassail‘, a drinking phrase and the name for a beverage given out during the Christmas season.


“Fela sceal gebidan Leofes ond laþes se þе longe her On ðyssum windagum world bruceð” – “The man that long enjoys life must endure pleasure and pain”

A line from the famous poem Beowulf.

“Ealra worulda woruld” – “The world of all worlds”

A phrase found in the Paris Psalter, meaning a world world without end or forever.

“Wyrd bið ful āræd” – “Settled in truth is fate!”

A phrase found in the poem The Wanderer, it means acceptance of destiny. There are many other ways you can translate this phrase, including “Fate is full stubborn” and “Fate is fully fixed.”


“Fæder ūre þū þe eart on heofonum” –  “Our Father who art in heaven”

The opening line to the Old English version of the Lord’s Prayer.

“Swa swa sceap betweonen wulfum” – “As a sheep among wolves”

A version of this phrase can be found in the writings of Bede and the Corpus Christi Homily.

“Beorhtre þonne sunne” – “As bright as the sun”

There are several examples where a phrase like this is used, such in the poem Elegy, which has the line “þa cwom semninga sunnan beorhtra Lacende,” meaning “For there came a swift, flickering flame, brighter than the sun.”

“Soð bið swicolost” – “Truth is the trickiest.”

Found in Maxims II, a piece of wisdom poetry. It means that the truth can sometimes be the difficult to handle.

“Hwalas ðec herigað” – “The whales praise you”

This phrase is found in the Old English poem Daniel, which is loosely based on the Biblical Book of Daniel.


“Swa breþel seo, swa þystel” – “As brethel as Thistle”

From an Anglo-Saxon charm, it means to be fragile.

“Wel mon sceal wine healdan on wega gehwylcum” – “A man must well hold a friend in every way”

From Maxims I

“Sua eac bið se here eal idei, ðonne he on oðer folc winnan sceal, gif se heretoga dwolað” –  “If the Heretoga errs then is all the here idle”

From Alfred the Great’s Old English translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, this line means that if a military commander makes a mistake, the entire army suffers.

“His ansyn waes swylce ligræsc” – “To be like Lightning”

A need for speed in the Old English Gospel of Nicodemus.

“þær lyt gehaten byð, þæг byð lyt leane” – “Where little is promised there is little lying”

One of the proverbs in the Old English Dicts of Cato.

Opening Lines of Beowulf

“Deað bið sella Eorla gehwylcum þonne edwitlif” – “Death is better than shameful life”

Another line from Beowulf, talking about honour.

“Swa fulre fæt, swa hit mann sceal fægror beran” – The fuller the cup, the more carefully it must be carried”

One of The Durham Proverbs, which were collected in the eleventh century.

“Dol biþ se þe him his Dryhten ne ondrædeþ: cymeð him se deað unþinged” – “A fool is the one who does not fear his Lord – death comes to him unprepared”

This line can be found in both The Seafarer and Maxims II.

“His eagan scinon swa leohte swa morgensteorra” – As light as a morning star”

This phrase can be found in the Old English Martyrology.

“Cū-wearm” – “Cow-warm”

In her book, The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English, Hana Videen explains that the are several cow-related phrases. One medical recipe calls for “Gehæt scenc fulne cuwearmre meolce,” which means “Heat a cupful of cow-warm milk.”

“Þæs oferéode, ðisses swá mæg” – “That passed, this also might”

The poem Deor, found in the Exeter Book from the late tenth century, uses this line several times.


“Lofdædum sceal In mægþa gehwære man geþeon” – “By praiseworthy deeds one may be sure to do well in every nation”

Another heroic line in Beowulf.

“Swa mann mare specði swa him læs manna gelefeð – “As one speaks more the less he is believed”

Another proverb found in the Dicts of Cato.

“Nu hit ys on swines dome, cwæð se ceorl sæt on eoferes hricge – “It’s up to the pig now, said the man who sat on the boar’s back”

We end with these words of wisdom from the Durham Proverbs. Read more of them here.

You can read more phrases in Hana Videen’s The Wordhord and in Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases From English Writings mainly before 1500, by Bartlett Jere Whitting.

Top Image: Boar riding in Lilienfeld, Stift Archiv, HS 151