Middle English

A Basic Glossary of Odd Usages in Chaucer's

                 East Midlands (London) Middle English (____=ME; boldface=ModE) "(!)" potentially surprising to ModE readers


al although; also, as adj., all; as adv. wholly (al be he)

alday continually

alderbest best of all

algate in any case,at any rate

anoon immediately

atones at once

als as well as, also


bet better

bidden, bad, boden bid, pray, but also, command (!)

bihote promise (Cf. ModE "behest")

biknowen make known

blyve quickley

bountee goodness (NOT ModE "bounty")

brennen burn brent burnt

breyd moved suddenly, started

but if unless (introduces a verb: "But if he will...")

buxom obedient


can, kan, konne, koude be able, know how, know, learn

cas, caas chance, accident

certes certainly

clepen name, call (Cf. archaic ModE [OE] "yclept" for "called")

cheer, chiere face, expression, manner, mood

     make chiere be friendly, show hospitality

conne, konne, can, coude know, be able (!); kowthe known (Cf.       ModE "uncouth")

corage heart, desire

costage expense

coy quiet


daintee (n.) delight; (adj.) fine, spendid

daungerous distant, haughty

debonaire gracious, kindly

deemen judge, think, decide, suppose

del bit  every deel, entirely (Cf. ModE "every bit")

defense prohibition, defense (!)

degree rank, social scale, condition

dressen prepare, equip, dress (!)

disease discomfort

drenchen drown (Cf. ModE "drench"); draynt, dreynt drowned

devyse devise, say, relate, describe

do doon do, cause, make; do make cause to be made (many other similar "do + ?" compounds occur)


eek also

em uncle (Cf. "Auntie Em, Auntie Em!"--nah, just kidding)

emforth to the extent of

er before

estate state, condition, rank, social standing

endelong along

estately deliberate, composed

falle befall, happen, fall (!)

fare go, behave, act, fare

faste close by, eagerly, fast (!)

fay faith

fere mate, companion; in fere together

feele many

ferre farther (N.B. more far, not "additionally" [which would be ModE "further"])

fin end (Cf. ModF "final")

for because of, in order that, despite, for (!)

fordoon spoil, destroy

fors matter, consequence; doon no fors pay no attention, not care

forthy therefore

forward promise

forwhy because

fre noble, gracious, large minded, liberal, free (!)

fro from


gan to did, began to (!)

glossen cheat, gloss, explain, interpret (!)

gruchen complain

gyse guise manner, way, fashion, custom


han have

hardy bold, sturdy; hardily assuredly, certainly

heeste promsise

hem them

her their, her (!!)  

heten, hight be called, promise; Ich hight... My name is...

him thought it seemed to him, he thought  (Cf. it meseemeth)

holden consider, hold (!)

honest honorable; honeste dignity, honor

hente seize, capture, take


ilke same (Cf. ModE idiom, "of that ilk")

it meseemeth it seems to me


jape joke, jest


kan know, be able, know how; koude knew, was able, knew how

keepe attention, heed

kynde nature (!)


lakken blame

large generous, big, broad (!) (Cf. ModE idiom, "large minded")

lat let

leeve, leve, lief dear;

leifer, rather

me were levere I would rather

legen lay


lemman lover, mistress

lese lose

leten hinder, prevent (!)

lite  little

lough laughed (past of laughen)

like, liketh it pleases; it liketh me it pleases me, I wish

list t pleases; me list it pleases me, I wish

lust pleasure (NO NECESSARY SEXUAL IMPLICATION‑‑check context)

lusty hearty, healthy, vital, happy


maistow may you, you may

mede meadow, mead

meede reward, meed, payment, bribe (!)

mete food, dinner, meat (!)

meten (proun. "mee‑tan") dream; meten (proun. "maytan") meet

moten must, may, ought to; so mote I as I hope to

mowen, maist, may, might can, be able


namelich namely, especially

nas ne was

nere was not (ne were)

nice foolish, finicky

nolde would not (ne wolde)

nys is not (ne is)

nones occasion

noot knows not (ne woot); nyste knew not (ne wyste)


paramour lover, mistress

paraunter perchance

plainen  complain (N.B. related to the poetic genre, ME "playnte")

prees crowd, press

play joke, tease, enjoy yourself, play (N.B. something adults do)


quaint strange, sly

quikke living, alive, lively, fast (!)

quite repay, requite

quod said


rathe early

rather sooner, rather (!)

rede advise, counsel (!); red, reed adj. red

right as, right so just as..., so

route company, retinue, crowd (Cf. ModE "rout")

routhe pity, ruth


sad steadfast, constant, committed (!NOT gloomy, unhappy!)

sauf safe

science knowledge, learning (not necessarily of natural world)

seistow do you see (seist thou)

seith says

sely innocent, unsophisticated, harmless, happy, fortunate (NOT  ModE "silly")

sentence meaning, content, point, opinion

shende harm, ruin, spoil

shent harmed, ruined, spoiled

sik sigh

siker certain, sure, secure

sitthen since, after, because

skile reason, argument

smal delicate, graceful, trivial, little (!)

solas pleasure, delight (Cf. ModE "solas)

sooth truth (Cf. ModE "soothsayer")

soun sound

sounen resound

sounen into tend to produce, conduce to

spille kill

stente, stinte stop, cease

sterte start up, spring up, leap

subtle crafty, cunning, clever, subtle (!)

substance property, possessions, substance (!)

swich such

swinken work

swithe quickley

syn since


take give, take, receive (!!)

tene grief, vexation

there where, there (!)

thereto besides, also, moreover

tho then

thing contract, dead, thing  (!)

thrift good luck, good management, prosperity;

         thrifty decent, proper, excellent (Cf. ModE "to thrive")

trowen trust, believe


unkinde unnatural, unkind (kinde nature/natural)

unethe scarcely, with difficulty, not easily

usage custom, habit


vanitee futility, falsity (NOT ModE "vanity")

verray true, proper, veritable (i.e., the real thing, not ME "fals")

vertu  power, strength, vitality, capacity, moral virtue (!)

viage journey, travel (ModE [nautical] "voyage")

vilainye crudity, discourtesy, slander, shameful speech, evil (!)

vitaille food, provisions (Cf. ModE archaic, "vittles")


waiten watch, wait for an opportunity, wait (!)

waiven avoid, withdraw, waive

wanten lack, desire (!)

war aware, wary; be war take warning, beware

wax become, grow (used now of moon increasing in size)

wele prosperity, well being, good fortune, joy

wighte creature

will desire, will (!)

wis wise; wis or wisley adv., surely

witen, woot, woost, wiste know (vs ME."kan" as "to know as "to be able, to have knowledge to control)

wit intelligence, knowledge (NOT ModE "wit" [humor] or C18 "wit" [cleverness])

withoute drede undoubtedly ("no doubt")

wombe stomach (!)

wont custom, habit (Cf. ModE idiom, "as is his wont")

what why, what (!)

wher whether, where (!)

whilom once, once upon a time, formerly

wood crazy, mad

wreken avenge

wroth angry


yaf gave

y‑ prefixed to verb = past participle (yclept= named)

y‑bore, yborne carried, borne

ye (pron. "yee"); eye yen (pron. yee‑en) eyes

yfere together

yiven give

ynough, ynowe enough

yvele evil

ywis to be sure, certainly

yerne eagerly



Aids in Guessing:


"Y" often is substituted for the ModE long "i" sound, as in "whyte," but remember ME sounds the "i" vowel as "ee"

Try reversing an "r+vowel" to "vowel+r": e.g., thrist = thirst

Try reversing e for i and vise versa

Try reversing e for a and vice versa

Try reversing oa for o, or f for v, or th for d (fader=father),  or ea for e (grete=great), or o for e (pref=proof)


To Know for Sure:


            The Oxford English Dictionary (click to go to the Library databases and use the online version, or see the print copy at 423 M98 1989) will give chronologically organized (oldest to newest) usages for a wide range of surviving Middle English words.  Note that spelling will have been regularized so you may have to adopt the "Guessing" rules listed above.

            For words beginning in “A” to those beginning with “Wel,” the Middle English Dictionary (427.02 M62 Reference) is the authoritative, comprehensive source for usage examples which may provide a definition for any individual usage we encounter.  The dictionary was published in "fasicles," bunches of contiguous pages, as the entries for each letter are completed by scholars working at University of Michigan. 


In all cases, your first strategy should be: read difficult passages aloud, fully articulating the vowels, and  listen to yourself.