Scytel: A New Old English Word for ‘Penis’

Bethany Christiansen 1
  • 1 University, Ohio, United States of America
Bethany Christiansen


In this paper, I examine the Old English word scytel, which appears in the Old English Medicina de quadrupedibus. I argue that, contrary to definitions offered in current Old English lexical aids, scytel does not mean ‘dung’, but rather ‘penis’. In the Medicina de quadrupedibus, OE scytel translates Lat. moium (from Greek μοιóν) ‘penis’. I begin by tracing the development of the definition/s of scytel in the lexicographic tradition (Sections 1.1 and 1.2) and in editions of the Medicina de quadrupedibus (Section 1.3). Starting with Bosworth-Toller (1882–1898), scytel (1) was defined as ‘dung’, apparently on the misperception of an etymological relationship between scytel (1) and Old English scitta, n. ‘shit’. Section 2 offers a discussion of the manuscripts containing the Old English Medicina de quadrupedibus and its Latin source text, and Section 3 contains a discussion of the two relevant recipes that contain OE scytel (1). In Section 4.1 I show that, in fact, scytel (1) cannot be etymologically related to any scit‑/scīt‑ ‘shit’ words in Old English, as the two derive from separate Germanic (Gmc.) and Proto-Indo-European (PIE) roots. In Section 4.2, I argue that the scribe of the manuscripts containing scytel could not have written a non-etymological <y> for /i/, which eliminates the possibility that scytel is connected to scit‑/scīt‑ ‘shit’. It becomes clear, as demonstrated in Section 4.3, that scytel (1) ‘penis’ and scytel (2) ‘dart’ can be reconciled as a single dictionary entry, with ‘penis’ as a metaphorical extension of ‘dart’. I demonstrate in Section 4.4 that, from a cross-linguistic perspective, ‘dart’ > ‘penis’ is a well-attested semantic shift. Ultimately, it is clear that the Old English translator/s of the Medicina de quadrupedibus correctly translated the rare Latin word for ‘penis’ they encountered in the source text.

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A renowned journal of English philology, Anglia was founded in 1878 by Moritz Trautmann and Richard P. Wülker. It is thus the oldest journal of English Studies in existence. Anglia publishes essays on the English language and linguistic history, on English literature of the Middle Ages and the modern period, on American literature, on new literatures in English, as well as on general and comparative literary studies.