The Angle of English

Following the story of a word.

In 1496, an English nun and author named Dame Juliana Berners wrote and published A Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle, a comprehensive guidebook for 15th-century sportfishers. Various historical accounts describe Dame Juliana Berners as not only devout (she was prioress of a nunnery at St. Albans, England), but also as an enthusiastic outdoorswoman, hunter, and angler.

While fly-fishing devotees may be intrigued to know that a nun published the first sportfishing manual, word-lovers like myself see a linguistic jewel in the title of the work: the little word angle, Old English for “fishing hook,” a term in use from the 1400s to the 1900s. Its ultimate source is the ancient Indo-European term angg, meaning “to bend.” Angle has fallen out of favor and is now considered archaic; the word hook unseated it in the mid-1800s. Yet, curiously, it lives on in its derivatives angler and angling. For the philosophical angler who might treasure a linguistic curio while fishing autumn waters, read on.

In the border region shared by present-day southern Denmark and northern Germany lived a tribe of ancient Germanic-speaking peoples who lived in Angeln, a “hook-shaped” peninsula. The Angles of this area migrated across the North Sea to a nearby western island in about 450 AD. Outnumbering and overpowering the Celtic people native to the island, the Angles ruled the land, placing upon it the name Angleland, and ultimately England, with English as its native tongue. These names share linguistic DNA with the word angle Dame Juliana Berners included in the title of her 1496 Treatyse.

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