Callow is a word that dates back to the beginnings of the English language, but it has shifted in meaning significantly over the past eleven-hundred years. Today it means ‘inexperienced, green,’ and it often appears in the phrase callow youth. But way back when it was associated with aging, for in Old English the word calu meant ‘bald.’

Calu appears eighteen times in the extant Old English corpus, referring either to a bald person or a place devoid of vegetation. One example is in Riddle 40 found in the late tenth-century manuscript known as the Exeter Book, lines 98–104:

Ne hafu ic in heafde    hwite loccas
wræste gewundne,    ac ic eom wide calu;
ne ic breaga ne bruna    brucan moste,
ac mec bescyrede    scyppend eallum;
nu me wrætlice     weaxað on heafde
þæt me on gescyldrum    scinan motan
ful wrætlice    wundne loccas.

(I do not have on my head elegantly curled blond locks, but I am very bald; I have no use for eyelids or brows, but the creator deprived me of all; now wondrously there grows on my head tight locks that may shine on my shoulders most marvelously.)

The answer to the riddle is ‘creation.’ And like many of the riddles in the Exeter Book, this one is based on a Latin enigma, in this case Aldhelm’s Riddle 100, the corresponding lines 44–48 of which read:

Cincinnos capitis nam gesto cacumine nullos.
Ornent qui frontem pompis et tempora setis;
Cum mini caesaries volitent de vertice crispae,
Plus calamistratis se comunt quae calamistro

(For I wear no curls at the top of my head, which would adorn my brow with pomp and my temples with hair; when my curly hairs fly from the crown of my head, they are more arranged than hair curled with a curling iron.)

The meaning remained stable through the Middle English period, but in the late sixteenth century callow began to be applied to young birds, who were unfledged, without feathers. In 1580, Gabriel Harvey writes of university life:

I blush to thinke of some, that weene themselves as fledge as the reste, being God wot, as kallowe as the rest.

In 1604, Philemon Holland, translating Plutarch’s Morals, would write of:

Yoong callow birds which are not yet fethered and fledg’d.

This sense of ‘inexperienced’ would quickly overtake the ‘bald’ sense, driving the latter out of the language.


Dictionary of Middle English, s.v. “calwe,” University of Michigan, 2001.

Dictionary of Old English, s.v. “calu,” Toronto: Dictionary of Old English Project, 2007

Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “callow, adj. and n.,” second edition, 1989.

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