Anglo-Saxon is the adjective given to the Germanic tribes that migrated to and conquered Britain in the 5th century. Later it took on the meaning of referring to England and the English people as a whole. The name comes from two of the tribes that made this migration.
The Angles are thought to be from an area of Holstein, in what is now northern Germany, known as the Angul, so-called because of its shape. The word comes from a common Germanic root meaning a hook or other bent object. The Angles bequeathed their name to England and the English language.
The common sense of the word, meaning a bent object, is first recorded c.880 in King Alfred’s translation of Boethius’s Consolations of Philosophy:
Swa swa mid angle fisc gefangen biþ.
(Just as with an angle, fish are caught.)
The proper sense is also recorded at about the same time, again by Alfred, this time in his translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, c.885:
Þæt land, ðætte Angle ær hæfdon.
(The land the Angles had before)
Evidence of use of the proper sense in Latin predates that of English, although the Latin appears to be from the English, or the common Germanic, and the difference in dates is due to the fact that more Latin manuscripts survive from this period.
The Saxons were probably also from northern Germany, but from west of the Angle along the North Sea coastal plain. The name is West Germanic in origin and is rendered in Old English as seaxan. The modern spelling comes to us from the Latin. The name probably comes from seax, a short sword or dagger. Presumably, the tribe was known for using this weapon. Seax appears in Beowulf, line 1545:
Heo...hyre seaxe geteah brad brunecg
(She [Grendel’s mother]...drew her seax, broad, bright-edged)
The influence of the Saxons survives in place names like Wessex and Middlesex.
The combined term Anglo-Saxon appears in Latin texts by the late 8th century. English use is recorded from 934, when the term appears in a royal charter:
Ic Æthelstan, Ongol-Saxna cyning and Brytænwalda eallæs þyses iglandes
(I, Æthelstan, Anglo-Saxon king and powerful ruler of all these islands)
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton