why hlāford

Before officially receiving arms, someone erroneously called me “Lord Bran”. It sounded and felt so viscerally discordant that I immediately went looking for something better, and found “Hlāford” (pronounced HLAH-ford; the H is a puff of air before lah). It was perfect. Early period, Old English, with an implication of service that really resonated. I’d found my title.

“Hlāford” is the result of two words becoming conflated over time. The original compound word was a kenning, a common feature of Old English literature in which a two-word phrase is used instead of one. Their society delighted in riddles and wordplay, so sometimes kennings are simple circumlocution, but more often they offer poetic—or wry—commentary on what they describe.”Whale-road” is the sea. “Sky-candle” is the sun.

I fell in love with the concept of kennings when I studied Old English in college, during a personally transformative year. The language is important to me.

The original phrase of “hlāf-weard” (loaf-guardian) became “hlāf-ward”, became “hlāford”. It’s been translated many ways, anywhere from chieftain to husband to lord. But within the early Medieval English culture the implication was the same: it’s the dude in charge of guarding and allocating the bread, a role of massive importance for a society where bread forms the largest percentage of your caloric intake.

In our SCA context, I feel that the word holds an implication of responsibility to one’s community. It suggests that the bearer is obligated to safeguard equity, to ensure that the allocation of resources are appropriately distributed. A geas of justice.

And since the metaphorical resource being allocated was bread, I feel there’s a further current responsibility for sustaining my community, making sure everyone has what they need to achieve their goals, to grow, to thrive.

(Honestly, given a choice I would actually prefer a kenning like “hlāf-gifa”, loaf-giver, but the practicality of getting people to remember and pronounce “hlāford” is tough enough without adding in the Old English g. In my experience, there’s only so far most people will follow you down an untrodden road.)

Just as the word “hlāford” was formed through the evolution of language, over time the word itself evolved once again. “Hlāford” underwent the process of contraction and eventually became the word “lord”.

Therefore, the word we use today, with all its connotations of power impressed upon, initially derived from responsibility towards: a larger social force of obligation, a role of service to ones’ community. Given a choice between them, I will immediately choose the later. We are all traveling this life-road together, after all.

And so, while I’m not especially courtly, I understand that sometimes titles are appropriate. And when they are…well, to bawdlerise Moby Dick:

Call me Hlāford.