The etymology of sheriff


Reading about the first record of a Viking incursion into England in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle I encountered the word reve.

AD 787 This year king Bertric took Edburga the daughter of Offa to wife. And in his days came first three ships of the Northmen from the land of robbers. The reve then rode thereto, and would drive them to the king’s town; for he knew not what they were; and there was he slain. These were the first ships of the Danish men that sought the land of the English nation.

I was reminded of the Reeve’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Nothing in my limited recollection provided me with a definition of reve so I pulled up the ever-reliable OED which supplied this definition:


reeve n.

  1. Chiefly in Anglo-Saxon and later medieval England: a supervising official of high rank, esp. one having jurisdiction under a king; spec.

and then this later usage:

  1. The chief royal representative in a county, who administered royal justice and collected royal revenues; = sheriff n. 1. Now hist.

I concluded that reve must be the –riff in sheriff.

Upon checking the OED etymology of sheriff I learned:

Etymology: Old English scírgeréfa , < scír shire n. + geréfa reeve n.1 The etymological form shire-reeve (q.v. under shire n.) has occasionally been used by legal antiquaries from the 16th cent. downwards.

The OED definition for sheriff is:

  1. England (and Wales). In England before the Norman Conquest, the scírgeréfa (also called scírman) was a high officer, the representative of the royal authority in a shire, who presided in the shire-moot, and was responsible for the administration of the royal demesne and the execution of the law.

Six years after the demise of the shire-reeve named Beaduheard at the hands of the Vikings on the beach at Dorchester in 793 a larger contingent of Vikings sacked the monastery at Lindisfarne marking the beginning of the Viking era in Britain.

lady, lord, bread

Reading about runes I found an entertaining etymology.

In Old English the word for bread is hlaf. It’s fairly easy to recognize that this word is also the origin of the word ‘loaf’. What is a bit more surprising is that hlaford, sometimes spelled hlafweard, is the OE word for lord. The hlaf is bread and the ord/weard is ‘guardian, keeper’. And once alerted to look, it’s not too hard to see that ‘warden’ may have arisen from weard which would be plausible for ‘guardian’.

So a lord is a ‘loaf-guardian’ but even better, if we delete the voiceless consonants /h/ and /f/ from hlaford we even have (almost) the modern spelling, laord (in Scottish laird).

The story continues with lady. The lady of the house was hlǣfdige in OE. hlaf has undergone a slight vowel shift but the meaning is still ‘bread’. dige is ‘dough’ or ‘kneader of dough’. So lady is a bread kneader.

And once again when you look at hlǣfdige and make a few adjustments –including the fact that OE ‘g’ was pronounced [j] (the y-sound of ‘yes’) when it occurs before ‘e’– you get lǣdiye. Sounds a lot like lady to me.


When I learn an interesting fact that pleases me I will try to post it here.

Human eggs develop in the female embryo during the 13th week of gestation. At the time of a woman’s birth she has all of the eggs that she will have for her lifetime. This means that the egg that developed into me and both of my brothers resided for about 27 weeks in the womb of my maternal grandmother. When grandma Viola was pregnant with my mother she was carrying ‘potential-me’. I wonder if this explains my compulsion to get closer to Viola?


Viking times

The Norman historian Dudo of Saint-Quentin wrote this about the Viking Anstign in about 986ce:
Death-dealing, uncouth, fertile in ruses, warmonger-general,
Traitor, fomenter of evil, and double-dyed dissimulator,
Conscienousless, proudly puffed up; seducer, deceiver, and hot-head.
Gallows-meat, lewd and unbridled one, quarrel maintainer,
Adder of evil to pestilent evil, increaser of bad faith,
Fit to be censured not in black ink, but in charcoal graffiti.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme fuckery.