'Wlonk' - the Word Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Wlonk' - the Word

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If someone described you as a wlonk, how might you feel? It sounds like a nonsense word - maybe an invented name for a member of an alien race, or something.

In fact, 'wlonk' is a real word, and it's English. Admittedly it's not very common; it became obsolete in the Middle Ages and belongs to a period in which our language was known as Middle English. It was certainly well used and appears in some of the best known writings of the time, including the Old English poem Beowulf and the 14th Century Arthurian epics Morte Arthure1 and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Let's examine this most unusual word and decide whether now would be a suitable time to re-establish it in modern English.

Dictionary Corner

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, 'wlonk' meant a number of things. It was an adjective meaning 'proud' or 'haughty', and in another sense 'rich' or 'lush'. These lines from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight describe the hero's polished armour - as fine as anything in Greece:

He had upon uch pece,
Wypped ful wel and wlonk,
The gayest into Grece;

But wlonk was also a noun, and as uncomplimentary as it may sound, it actually meant 'a fair or beautiful one'.

Of thir fair wlonkes,..Ane wes ane wedow
(Of their fair wlonks, one was a widow)
– Dunbar, Tua Mariit Wemen (Two married women) - 1508

How Can We Put This?

There's one obvious problem with reintroducing this word: how do you pronounce it? It's that 'wl' at the beginning - we just don't have any other words that start like that. Believe it or not, we used to have many of them, but they have all become obsolete. These included wlaffe - a verb meaning 'to stammer', wlak - tepid or lukewarm, wlat - nausea or disgust, wlench - to pride oneself, and wlo - a hem or fringe.

Sadly, we cannot know for sure how to pronounce 'wlonk'. Medieval scribes recorded and handed down to us the written word but failed to include a pronunciation guide. We're just going to have to decide on what seems to fit best.

One modern interpretation is provided by the song 'Pearl', recorded by the ensemble The Mediæval Bæbes on their 1998 album Worldes Blysse:

The dubberment dere of down and dales
Of wode and water and wlonk plaines

(The rich splendour of the downs and dales
The woods, the rivers and the fertile fields)

The Bæbes distinctly sing 'willonk'.

The Campaign Starts Here

So it seems as if 'wlonk' could be quite a useful addition to modern vocabulary. Why not slip it in to your conversation the next time you're at the pub? It would certainly add variety to some of those trite chat-up lines:

What's a wlonk like you doing in a place like this?
1This anonymous poem from around 1400 AD should not be confused with Le Morte d'Arthur, the epic history of King Arthur by Thomas Malory, written around 70 years later.

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