Ethelred the Clueless

There’s gleam and glow, gloom and gloomy.  Not to mention glum, glimmer, and glisten.  For some reason our Old English ancestors seems to created a lot of words that began with ‘gl’+vowel that referred to light and the moods that went with it.

One of my new favorite words, ‘gloaming,’ would, in the normal course of Old English evolution have become ‘glooming’ (sharing the root *glô) but took an another turn along the way.  I think the result is rather nice.  Both words might mean twilight, but ‘glooming’ could never escape the emotional connotation of sadness whereas ‘gloaming’ has become simply a special Scots word for the magical half-light time of day.

I call it a ‘new’ favorite because it was only fairly recently that I found out that is what the ‘gloaming’ is.  Before that I thought it was some kind of Scotch shrubbery.  Ah, well.

Okay.  Laugh if you want.  But just when did you look up the words to Loch Lomond and discover what ‘braes’ are?  And what did you think they were before you looked them up?  Streams?  Ponds?  Perhaps…some form of shrubbery?

But, getting back to English, isn’t it interesting that the dark words, like gloom, gloomy, glum, etc, all refer to mood whereas the bright words like gleam, glow, and glimmer can mean mood but are often used by us for thought?  We get a ‘glimmer’ of an idea and a ‘gleam’ of inspiration.

Now, don’t get nervous.  I am not about to get philosophical.  I know of nothing profound to conclude from all that.  It is just…interesting.

Which, of course, is perhaps best the reason to love our language and its etymology.  Sure, etymology can teach you profound things about the inner workings of language.  And, sure, it can point the way into the dark corners of our psyches.  But the truth, and by far the best reason for loving it, is that it is fun.

I remember as a child being casually intrigued by the contents of the etymology boxes in the dictionaries with their strange abbreviations, but most of the time I just skipped over them to get to the definitions.

Until, that is, I met Ethelred.

Ethelred was formally Ethelred II, Anglo-Saxon king of England from 979 to 1016.  He was also one of the few kings to be pretty universally condemned by the Chroniclers.

I have a soft spot for old Ethelred.  He was the first character in history to teach me the true wonders and delights hidden in those etymology boxes.

It seems that Ethelred faced a pretty nasty problem: the Vikings had evolved from a bunch of hungry looters into a professional raiding force whose chief goal was simply money.  They were tough, disciplined, and extremely mobile.

To fight them, Ethelred had no professional army.  Aside from his personal bodyguards, the housecarls, he had to depend upon local levies (sort of a temporary draft).  These had two problems.  First, being basically farmers, they were no match for the Vikings on a man to man basis.  Second, they could only be called up for a limited time (have to take care of those crops), after which they were free to go home.

So if the king called them up too early, the Vikings would fail to arrive and the conscripts would simply go home.  Call them up too late and the raiders would be happily (and richly) on their way home before the levy could be gathered.

Somehow Ethelred never quite got it right.  And on the few occasions that a local levy managed to get together in the same neighborhood at the same time as the Vikings (without his royal help), they were too small and were soundly beaten.

Needless to say, Ethelred’s subjects were completely unsympathetic to his difficulties and completely disgusted with his results.

Then Ethelred had an inspiration: The Vikings wanted money?  Why not buy them off?  Simply giving them a bribe would surely be a lot cheaper than having them burn and loot as well as steal, not to mention the cost of all the work days lost in those ineffectual levies.

Sure enough, it worked.  Sort of.

In 991 Ethelred offered the Danes 10,000 pounds (weight) of silver to go away and (he hoped) to stay away.  However, three years later the Danes were back, demanding 16,000 pounds of silver.  Ethelred paid.  Eight years later, the Danish king, Olaf, and his men were back for more of what was coming to be called simply ‘Danegeld.’.  This time they demanded 24,000 pounds of silver.  In today’s terms, this represented an amount equivalent to the gross national product of the kingdom for two full years.

Clearly, Ethelred’s new strategy had a small flaw.  Many years later Rudyard Kipling would sum it up:  “If once you have paid him the Danegeld/You never get rid of the Dane.”

This was hardly Ethelred’s last error.  In time, his efforts would lead to the whole country being overrun by the Danes.  But the fiasco over the Danegeld did earn him a very special sobriquet:  Ethelred the Redeless.

Today, this is usually rendered as “Ethelred the Unready,“ which is a pity.  The old word Rede means so much more than that.

Literally, rede meant advice or counsel, which doesn’t tell us a heck of a lot.  ‘Counsel-less’ hardly sounds like a damning phrase.  But rede is also related to our word ‘read,’ as in to be able to read a situation.  It is related to the idea of being able to penetrate to the essence of something and see its true nature.  In order to give good advice, you had to be able to ‘read’ and understand.  A good counselor, a redecrafty person, was someone of penetrating vision and understanding.

On the other hand, given any set of choices, a redeless person would be sure to pick the wrong one.  Given a set of advisors, he would be sure to listen to the idiot.  If he had to go and meet the Vikings, he could be sure to be in the wrong place, or be at the right place at the wrong time, or be in the right place at the right time with too few men.  Or to get rid of someone he would give them something so precious they would be sure to be back for more.

Such was Ehtelred’s special talent.  It was not merely that he was ‘Unready.’  His defect was far more profound than that.  He was simply so wrong-headed that he could be depended upon to always make the wrong choice.  He was the sort of person you would ask for advice simply to know what not to do.

In today’s jargon, I guess it would be closest to call him ‘Ethelred the Clueless.”

There are those who might think it fairly useless to know some thoroughly obsolete term like that.   Well, the language may have changed, but people haven’t.  Over the years I have found myself privately applying that term to any number of people that I have encountered.

At the risk of giving offense, let me suggest that there is a public figure whose sorties into diplomacy have indicated a talent of the highest order.  I refer to our new President.

Consider: There is something called the Kyoto Treaty.  It is all about global warming and calls for the United States to reduce its production of Carbon Dioxide.  Not too surprisingly, a lot of people see the reduction of CO2 as calling for a cutback in industries and gas hungry SUVs and hence a threat to our consumption-driven way of life.  (Not true, by the way, as the quickest reductions would be caused by conservation efforts which would actually open whole new industries, but what the heck.).  Ergo Congress has not approved the treaty and we haven’t acted on it.

Wonderful!  We get to look good (calling for approval of the Treaty) while having no pain (by doing nothing to actually rock our boat.).

Then along comes our new President who insists on announcing that, “the Kyoto Treaty is dead.”  This gets us the maximum amount of world-wide infamy while changing absolutely nothing that we were already not doing.


There was also the ABM Treaty.  This treaty has actually been useful because it has kept everyone (e.g. the Europeans, Soviets, Chinese, etc) feeling safer.  And, of course, as we have all lacked the technology for an effective ABM defense, it cost us nothing.

Of course, we have been pushing along Star Wars technologies at a modest pace.  Just in the last couple of years we have conducted highly publicized tests of the progress of our new technologies, with consistent failure demonstrating that, even under controlled conditions, we are miles away from anything workable and years beyond that away from being able to actually field a workable system.

Then along comes our new President who insists on announcing that, “the ABM Treaty is obsolete” and we don’t intend to be bound by it.

Now, our signature is on that treaty and Congress certainly did approve that one.  So here is our leader announcing to the world that our word is no good.  Obviously a sound basis for future diplomacy.

Of course the technology still doesn’t work and we are years away from fielding anything so there was absolutely no point in announcing anything at all, but our new leader seems drawn to unnecessary acts that are all loss and no gain.


A few years back we had Chevy Chase lampooning Gerald Ford’s propensity for falling down.  In time it became the metaphor for his whole presidency.  I hope that George W. Bush learns on the job and we don’t need an adjective to describe someone with an irresistible urge to shoot himself in the foot to show how powerful he is.

But just in case he doesn’t, how does it sound:  George the Redeless?

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