We all know that an imp is a small devil or demon, or somewhat more playfully, a mischievous child. But it was not always so. Would you believe that imp originally meant a shoot of a plant, a sapling?
Imp is an old word, dating to Old English, and back then an imp was a small plant. The word appears as early as c. 897 in King Alfred’s translation of Pope Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care. Alfred (reigned 871–99), concerned that there were not enough competent speakers of Latin in England to foster sound education and advancement of knowledge, embarked on a campaign of translating Latin works into English and sponsoring new scholarly works in the vernacular. Alfred is personally credited with translating several significant works, including this one by Gregory. In his translation of Pastoral Care, Alfred writes:
Sio halige gesomnung Godes folces, ðæt eardað on æppeltunum, ðonne hie wel begað hira plantan & hiera impan, oð hie fulweaxne beoð.
(That is the holy congregation of God’s people, which dwells in orchards, when they cultivate well their plants & their imps, until they are full grown.)
This is commentary on the Song of Solomon, 8:13, which reads:
Thou that dwellest in the gardens, the friends hearken: make me hear thy voice.
Old English also had a corresponding verb, impian, meaning to implant or graft the shoot of a plant. These botanic senses are now obsolete.
By the fourteenth century, imp had made the jump from flora to people and was being used to mean a child, especially the scion of a noble house. This transition can be readily seen in two examples, a few decades apart. The first, uses an extended metaphor of plant growth in reference to a prince. The poem The Death of Edward III, written c. 1377, says of Edward’s grandson, Richard II, who succeeded his grandfather when he was just ten years old:
Weor þat Impe ffully growe, Þat he had sarri sap and piþ, I hope he schulde be kud and knowe ffor Conquerour of moni a kiþ.
(Were that imp fully grown, so that he had pleasing sap and pith, I hope he should be famous and known as conqueror of many a nation.)
The anonymous poet’s hopes were not to be realized, as Richard II was a rather weak king. Compare that to this line about another prince written by Thomas Hoccleve c. 1411 in the envoy to his Regement of Princes, which lacks any overt botanical references:
O litell booke, who yafe the hardynesse Thy wordes to pronounce in the presence Of kynges Impe and princes worthynesse?
(Oh little book, who gave [you] the courage to pronounce your words in the presence of the king’s imp and the excellence of princes?)
Hoccleve’s poem was written for the prince who would become Henry V, who as a grown man would fulfill the earlier, anonymous poet’s hopes for a conqueror-prince.
It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the word acquired its devilish connotation. It started to be used in phrases like “imp of a serpent” or “imp of the devil.” For example, a line in William Bonde’s 1526 Pylgrimage of Perfection reads:
Suche appereth as angelles, but in very dede they be ymps of serpentes.
(Such appear as angels, but in very deed they are imps of serpents.)
Such uses became so common that by the century’s end the qualifying phrase could be dropped and use of imp alone connoted demonic heritage. Reginald Scot’s 1584 The Discoverie of Witchcraft reads:
They haue so fraied vs with bull beggers, spirits, witches, [...] tritons, centaurs, dwarfes, giants, imps.
(They have so frightened us with bull-beggars, spirits, witches, [...] tritons, centaurs, dwarfs, giants, imps.
That’s how a budding plant becomes a little demon.
“imp, n.,” imp, v.” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
“impe (n.),” Middle English Dictionary, 2001.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton