The Language of the Medieval Fantasy Gameworld

The language of the medieval period of the game can provide an interesting avenue to be explored during play. Period language can be very colorful or just downright odd, and the use of a few phrases here and there during play can be quite a bit of fun. Adapting some of the language forms to a character’s speech during a game can greatly enhance the air of fantasy that surrounds a gaming session. The player might start with a single catch-phrase for his character, such as “Yea, verily!” or “Hail and well met!” or “Good morrow” or “In sooth, …”, or an oath like “Burning Spears of Light!”, and build from there, throwing in a “Hold, vartlet!” or “Gadzooks!” or “’Zounds!” here and there. Simply changing the pronouns “you” and “your” for “thee”, “thou”, “thy” and “thine” for a posh (noble or wealthy) character, rolling the “r” as is done in the romance languages, all can instantly change the air and enhance the period feeling of one’s roleplaying.

The following glossary presents a great many archaic turns of phrase and vocabulary, most of them Shakespearean but some earlier, with their meanings, to help the player get into the mood of the period. Shakespearean is about as early as the jargon still remains understandable, in large part, and what passes for “period” for the wide majority of fans of the milieu.

Glossary of Period Vocabulary

Period Term = Definition

affrighted = “frightened”

alack, alas = an exclamation or interjection of woe similar to “Woe is me”

an = “if”, as in “I would have done, an he swore me to it.” for “I would have done it, if he had made me swear to do it”

anon = “later” in the sense of “presently”, “momentarily” or “shortly”, as in “I will start shaking anon, my fear has not arrived yet.” for “I will start shaking presently, as soon as I become afraid”

armed, in arms = clad in armor, regardless of whether those so described are bearing weapons or not

armed at all points = dressed and ready for battle or tourney

armed to all rights = completely armed and fully equipped, ready for war

arrant = “notorious”, not to be confused with “errant”

arras = a tapestry hanging, named for the great city of weavers called Arras, in the Low Countries, where the great majority of the finest in quality among their kind were woven

art = “are”, as in “Why art thou come?”

assay = to set out to accomplish a task

ay, aye = “yes”, the first pronounced as the letter “a”, the second as the letter “i”

beauteous rare sight = a person or thing of astounding beauty

behoove = to be to one’s advantage, to be necessary, fit, or proper, as in “It behooves thee to learn of the pitfalls along the path thou wouldst tread”

betwixt = “between”, often contracted as simply “ ‘twixt”

bodkin = a small, double-edged dagger-shaped knife, so named for the common Renaissance ladies’ practice of concealing them in their bodices of their gowns

blackguard = a person of no honor or morals, pronounced “BLAG-gerd”

bring an action at law = to file suit in the courts

caitiff = one who is puny, sickly, poor, miserable, unfortunate and wretched; (later) a base and mean, wicked and cowardly and/or despicable person

cannikin = a small, can-like, handle-less drinking cup

certes = “certainly”

chaffer, haggle = to bargain, to argue the price of goods or services so as to bring it down

charlatan = one who makes unwarranted claims in selling goods and/or services, such as a vendor of quack remedies, prating on in public so as to gather a crowd, imposturing or having pretensions to great skill, ability, or knowledge he does not have; a “Trickster” or confidence-man

choler = “anger”

churl = a surly laborer or servant-type, sometimes used as an insult, depending on context; from the Nordic “ceorl”

clepe = to call, to name

clod-pate = block-head, dolt, slow or stupid; also “clod-poll”, “clot-pate” or “clot-poll”

cloth-eared = hard of hearing

cloth-head(-ed) = thick-headed, slow, stupid; also “clot-head” or “logger-head”, see clod-pate

comely = physically attractive

commonalty = the combined mass of the free and landbound peasantry; a collective term generally used by nobles and royalty, the clergy, and affluent townsmen – not unkindly meant

craven = “cowardly”

curmudgeon (in period) = a grasping, avaricious person, a miser

doggebold = hired muscle, a bully-lad and lackey; “dog-bold”, or ‘bold dog’ with no more brains than an animal, who bares its teeth on its master’s behalf, generally used as an insult

doth = “does”, formal speech of the upper class

doughty = tough and strong, as in “a most doughty warrior”

drab = a woman of easy virtue, or to associate with such women, as in “He drabs about in most unseemly fashion”

ere = “before”, as in “… ere long”, or “… ere thou dost leave this place”

fetching = physically attractive

fie = either “to heck with it” or “for shame”, as in “Fie on’t! Ah, Fie!!”, or “Fie, sir, fie! She trusted thee!”

flagon = a large, round-bellied pitcher with a narrow neck flaring out at the rim, with a thumb-tabbed lid hinged at the top of the handle in the same fashion as the lid on a German stein, with a standard capacity of 2 quarts and common throughout medieval Europe

fordoes = “ruins” or “dooms”, as in “In so doing, he fordoes himself”

fortnight = a period of time of two weeks in duration

futter = a coarse commoner’s (farmer’s) term for physical intercourse

gadzooks = an exclamation or interjection, a “minced oath” used in polite company when stronger language is intended but giving offense must be avoided; a contraction and corruption of “God’s hooks” referring to the nails from the cross, an offensive blasphemy

garderobe = “toilet”, also called the “Jakes”, “Necessarium” or “Reredorter”

gift = to give a present, as in “I gifted it her” or “See how he doth gift me with my every passing fancy”

go forth = when one must go to a particular place it is more proper to ‘go forth’ to that place, as in “Yea, and I did go forth to that place”

gramercy = either “thank you” or an exclamation of joy or surprise

hail = either praise, a greeting, origins, or to indicate good health, depending on context, as in “All hail his Lordship!” or  “Hail and well met, my friend!” or “Whence dost thou hail?” or “He is a hail and a hearty one”

hence = “away”, as in “Get thee hence!”

henceforth = from this point in time forward

hither = “here”, as in “Bring it hither” or the phrase “hither and yon” (here and there)

hold = either “stop” or “still”, as in “Hold, vartlet!” or “Hold thy tongue!”

huzzah = an exclamation of approval commonly used by audiences and crowds in the same manner as “Bravo!”, pronounced “huzz-AH!”

is’t = a common Shakespearean contraction for “is it”

jack = a common mug of shaped, sealed leather, prepared in the same manner as cuerbully

jackanapes = one who clowns about and carries on like a monkey for the amusement of others; a corruption of “Jack-of-Naples”, a slang term given to the [performing] monkeys and apes popularly available in that city in the period of the game

knave = a thief, a person of low morals and no honor

lemman = female lover, mistress, but in the sense that the man has none other besides her

‘lest = “unless”, as in “… ‘lest it come back to haunt thee”

“Let us away” = a proposition from one in a group for all included to depart for some other place

lief = “rather”, as in “I’d as lief  we’d not come hither”

list’ = a common Shakespearean contraction for “listen”

losel, lousel =  “louse”

lout = simple bumpkin, certainly unsophisticated, perhaps even a bit slow-witted;  a somewhat disparaging or condescending term generally used to describe those from simple rural origins, especially when first arriving in a more urban setting

make haste = to hurry or to command another to do so

matter = an issue or point of debate or contention, as in A: “What is the matter?” B: “The matter ’twixt whom?”

mileway (MILE-way) = the smallest unit of time counted by medieval folk prior to the invention and widespread use of the mechanical clock; the generally accepted period of time it takes the average man to walk a mile, used especially by craftsmen to time the lengths of their beer breaks during the workday

miscreant = an unbeliever, holder of a false or unorthodox religious belief, a heretic or infidel, thus, a depraved, base and vicious person

mislike = doesn’t like, as in “It mislikes me greatly” for “It doesn’t please me at all”; the object of the dislike is the subject of the verb, rather than the object

moble(d) (MOB-uhl) = to wrap the head as in a veil or hood, hooded or veiled

mountebank = a charlatan, a confidence man, a boastful and unscrupulous pretender, a man of false pretenses and airs, trickery or buffoonery; a trickster

muddy-mettled = slow of wit, slow on the up-take, dense or stupid

nay = “no”

ne’er = “never”

niggardly = “stingy”

o’er = “over”

office = in administration, including government positions, the list or scope of one’s duties and responsibilities are referred to as one’s “office” and, as those duties and responsibilities may be many in number the term may be used in the same context in the plural, and the exercise of them also referred to as exercising one’s offices; also, in telling time, any one of the eight times each day (every three hours) the churches ring the bells marking the time of day and calling to prayer the members of the clergy when they perform their offices of prayer, called “Prime”; “Tierce”; “Sext“; “Nones”; “Vespers”; “Compline”; “Matins”; and “Lauds”; these are based on the division of the hours of daylight and darkness into 12 equal portions, regardless of the time of year, rather than according to mechanically timed hours by which one can count the lengthening and shortening of the daylight hours and darkness with the changing of the seasons; see also “Time in the Medieval World”

oft’ = “often”

parley = to discuss or negotiate, but not in the same manner as chaffering or haggling, much more refined after the fashion of courtiers and diplomats and noble opponents at war

passing strange = something confusing or beyond immediate comprehension, particularly used when the facts surrounding some event or persons actions or behavior do not make sense or jibe with what is already known of them

pate, poll = “head”

picaroon = a rogue, a thief, a brigand; a pirate or his ship

points = the laces or things attached to a piece of clothing, such as a doublet or ladies bodice or garment of padded armor, which enable another piece of clothing or especially plate armor to be tied on, thus securing it in place particularly for wear in battle, also in the case of sleeves, which often changed style faster than the basic styles of the rest of the clothing; also the metal fittings used to bind and protect the ends of these laces or thongs from fraying with wear and make them easier to thread through holes

prate = to speak in empty boasts, to tell meaningless or untrue tales, to chatter or babble without meaning, to talk much without saying anything of importance; the speech of people who prate on this way is referred to as “prattle”

puissant = highly skilled, masterful

rede = advice or counsel, pronounced as “reed”

riband = “ribbon”

sally forth = to rally and make a concentrated effort, or simply to depart a place on a quest, errand or other purpose; arising from the ‘sally port’ in a castle gatehouse which allows the besieged to strike out at their adversaries from a hidden or protected portal, thus outflanking the foe

seemly = “proper” or “dignified”, in keeping with the common, socially accepted ideas and standards of propriety and respectability

set his cap for = one who is determined to get something or achieve some goal or prize “sets his cap” for it

sith = “since’

small-clothes = underclothes, underwear

smite = to strike a blow; past tense “smote”, also “smitten”

smitten = to be in love or infatuated with another

sommat = “somewhat”, but used in the meaning of “something”

sooth = “truth”, as in “In sooth, I know not” for “In truth, I don’t know”

sore hawk = in falconry, the proper term for a young hawk, distinguishable by the fact that he will not have achieved the full growth of his adult plumage

spurn = “reject”, carrying also a connotation of ridicule

-st, -est = a modifying word ending, commonly reserved for use on verbs in the formal speech of the upper classes, as in “Canst thou not?”, “Givest thou it unto me”, “Dost thou truly think it?” or “whither goest thou?”

stew = a brothel, from the practice of prostitutes hanging about in public Roman-style bathhouses, some of which remained in service from that era while others of the same sort were built new in the period of the game

strumpet = a loose young woman

succor = aid, help, to give relief to, used as both a noun and a verb

swain = “lover” or “admirer”, but the latter also carrying a romantic connotation

take my leave = a phrase indicating one’s intent to leave, used especially when in the presence of social superiors phrased as a question when requesting permission to leave or to “withdraw” from their presence

tankard = a large straight-sided, mug-like pitcher with a thumb-tabbed lid hinged at the top of the handle in the same fashion as the lid on a German stein, with a standard capacity of 1 quart and common throughout medieval Europe

tatterdemallion = a ragged person, a ragamuffin; from the French for a wearer of tattered mail, indicating a poor, ill-kept man

thou, thee, thine = the various permutations of the pronoun “you” and the possessive “yours”, as in “Thou hast the right of it” or “I have gifted it unto thee” and “It shall be thine in perpetuity, henceforth”

tiercel = in falconry, the proper name for a male falcon, only the females are properly called “falcons”

truepenny = a name for an honest person, arising from the practice of sealing business deals and concords or agreements and contracts with the exchange of a penny of good faith

tup = a coarse commoner’s (farmer’s) term for physical intercourse

turn one’s head = to be in love or infatuated with another, to be so affected is to have one’s “head turned”

twelvemonth = a year

unseemly = “undignified”, inappropriate, beneath the standards of commonly socially accepted behavior, propriety and respectability

usurp = to take away from another, to deprive and deny the rightful owner, especially in the case of ownership of property (moveable and/or real), position, rank, or office, rights, privileges, or powers

vartlet = a man of no honor, a criminal, a blackguard

verily = “truly”, as in “Verily, he did answer it me” or “Yea, verily, brother!”

vex = to trouble, annoy, irritate or anger; those so affected may simply be “vexed” or they may be “sorely vexed”

want, wants, wanting = “lack”, “lacks”, “lacking”, as in “how dost thou find it wanting, sir?” or “It wants for even simple reason!” or “How dost thou want so and yet live?”

well met = a greeting, the equivalent of  “good to see you” or “how fortunate to see you again”, as in “Hail and well met, my friend!”

whence = from where, as in “Whence hast thou come?”

wherefore = “why”, as in the line from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” : “Wherefore art thou Romeo? Forswear thy father and refuse thy name …” in which she wants to know why Romeo must be a member of the family warring with her own, begging him to turn his back on his family

whither = “to where”, as in “Whither goest thou?”

ye = “you”, pronounced “yee”

yea = “yes”, pronounced “yay”

yon, yonder = “over there”, usually accompanied by some gesture of direction

‘zounds = an exclamation or interjection, a “minced oath” used in polite company when stronger language is intended but giving offense must be avoided; a contraction and corruption of “God’s wounds” referring to the wounds inflicted on the Christ, an offensive blasphemy

 

Of course, this glossary is far from complete, but it is a good enough place from which a player can start. If the player enjoys sorting out archaic phrases and vocabulary, the words of Chaucer and Shakespeare are readily available, although Shakespeare is 100+ years later than the period proposed for the game. The true middle or old english of the 1300’s and earlier is rather contorted and difficult to puzzle out without formal study, however.

The player should at least try to avoid the more blatant uses of modern language and vocabulary during game play. The wealthy commoners who will likely look down their noses at those characters who are socially below them should not be called “snobs” – they have or wear “lofty airs”. Those who act in a snobbish or high-handed manner, especially when their right to do so is rather limited, are “uppity”, or “getting above their station”, or worse, “putting on airs”. To say such a thing of a working-class commoner without reason is cause for a fight, and likely cause for a fight even if it is true. The odd things that happen in a character’s life aren’t “weird”, they are “passing strange” – a “weird” is a person’s doom, and when it comes upon him it haunts and drives him and cannot be avoided, usually ending in death. It is an archaic term even in the period of the game, much more readily understood and accepted by those who follow the Olde Ways of the Green Lords. The dazzling mosaic on the wall is not great “art”, an “art” is a craft or trade which may or may not be represented by a guild, or one of the fields of study of magick, all of which may also be referred to as “mysteries” – or “art” may be a conjugation of the verb “to be”. “Dude” is right out.

For the most part, even if the player doesn’t wish to play with the language in this way, the fewer modern anachronisms that creep into play and the fewer the comments made that don’t fit into the context of the game, the smoother the game the flow and the more vivid it will be for all involved.