Printable Version
Pronunciation: thayn Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. Someone in Anglo-Saxon times, accorded land for military service (cyninges þegn "king's theyn"). It was a rank between an eorl (earl) and a ceorl (churl, ordinary freeman). 2. (Scottish history; thane) Someone ranking as the son of an earl, the chief of a clan. 3. (Thane) A Scottish laird (lord).

Notes: Today's word is a blast from the past you might bump into if you read historical literature. From the 17th century onward it was usually spelled thane in Scotland. It picked up a lexical family in this spelling: thanedom "realm of a thane", thanehood "rank of a thane", and thaneship "office of a thane". Thegnly "of, like a thegn" appears in the old literature, too.

In Play: Here is a citation from a review of Grendel, a 1971 novel by John Gardner, in Wikipedia: "Watching the Danes, Grendel hears a woman predict the coming of an illustrious thegn and then witnesses the death of the Shaper." Thegn appears 204,000 times on the Web in 2022: "The thegn transmitted thegnly blood to his offspring.

Word History: Today's Good Word in Old English was þegn "landowner by military service" from Proto-Germanic thegnas, which produced archaic German Degen "valiant warrior". This might take it back to PIE tek-/tok- "to birth, beget" with an -n suffix, of which Sanskrit takman "child", and classical Greek teknon "child" and tokos "childbirth" are surely descendants. The problem here is semantic: thegns were not known for inheriting their ranks but earning it by military service. The trail ends here. Tek-/tok- appears to be a PIE word swallowed by the smoke of linguistic history. (Double thanks are due Luciano Eduardo de Oliveira for serving valiantly on the GW editorial board and submitting such fascinating Good Words as today's.)

Dr. Goodword,

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