On the 23rd of December, 2003, I was traveling through Paddington, a mainline railway station in
London. I glanced up at a stall selling London's Evening Standard. It had a typical headline: it
shouted out 'Power fault cripples tube...' (See Photo). London's Underground system had failed yet
again, perhaps a sad legacy of its long-term underfunding. So what is the history and meaning of
this word cripple? A quick search in Google on the 30th of May, 2003, it revealed a large number
of contemporary web sites that mention the word 'cripple' in their headlines, including:
The site was briefly hijacked by US hackers . . . .
[...] Bill Gates yesterday warned that the tougher settlement
demanded by nine US states in the long-running antitrust case
would be crippling for the firm,. . . .
'Cripple' is an expression that many primary English users learn in the playground.The
word features on newspaper headlines, TV News bulletins and the Internet. So where
does the word cripple actually come from? And what did it originally mean?
A simple interpretation of these headlines indicates that in current practice the word is
almost always used as a negative metaphor, suggesting presumed disaster of one kind or another. I
feel sure that every reader of the English language will know plenty of other examples. Its history,
however, is a long and complex one.
Naturally, I first turned to the current Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and then to the Anglo-
Saxon Dictionary Supplement (ASD) edited by T. Northcote Toller and published in 1921.
Both dictionaries give their earliest recorded reference as:
crypel; es; m. A cripple :—He cuoe æm cryple (paralytico).
The Gospel of St. Luke. Chapter V. v. 24.
Both dictionaries are correct as far as it goes.
Their source or authority comes from the Lindisfarne Gospels of the eighth-century.
The story and beauty of the Lindisfarne Gospels (BL: Cotton Nero D. IV) is without question.
The text is both written in the Vulgate Latin and the Northumbrian Anglo-Saxon.
Vulgate ('vulgÐris'); literally means 'common' or 'ordinary' Latin. The text came from
the St. Jerome version of 405 AD/CE. All of the artwork and Vulgate script in the Lindisfarne
Gospels was the work of one person, Bishop 'Eadfrith. 'Eadfrith was Bishop of the church of
Lindisfarne, until 721. He penned the book in honour of God and St. Cuthbert . His opus was
brought to an end by his death in that same year.
The long story of this book is well known, it was nearly lost to Viking raiders in 875 and saved by
monks devoted to Saint Cuthbert.
Later on, when an understanding of Latin was beginning to decline, a glossary was transcribed
above the Latin text by a monk named Aldred. It represents a word by word translation into the Old
English of the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria in 950/970.
King Alfred [The Great] had already commented in the previous century about the loss of an
understanding of Latin and a need for books in English. In his rendition of Pope Gregory's Pastoral
Care into the Anglo-Saxon/Old English of his time. Alfred wrote in his own introduction that:
Swæ clæne hio wæs oðfeallenu ón Angelcynne ðæt swiðe feawa wæron
behionan Humbre ðe hiora ðeninga cuðen understondan ón
Englisc, oððe furðum án ærendgewrit óf Lædene ón Englisc
areccean; & ic wene ðæt[te] noht monige begiondan Humbre næren.
So general was its decay in England that there were few on this side of the Humber
who could understand their rituals in English, or translate a letter from Latin into
English; and I believe that there were not many beyond the Humber.
West Saxon Version of Gregory's Pastoral Care translated by Dr. Henry Sweet
A slightly different translation can be found in Alfred the Great by Keynes and Lapidge.
Aldred's glossary of the Gospels represents a major key to an understanding of the Old-English
vocabulary. Its interesting history is best conveyed by Dr. Michelle P. Brown in her book The
Lindisfarne Gospels - Society, Spirituality and the Scribe.
However, this is not the whole story. On a careful rereading of the Anglo-Saxon Dictionary
Supplement, I found another reference:
v. eorþ-crypel Unfortunately, this reference led nowhere.
Sometimes it pays to read nineteenth-century publications, even though many have inaccuracies
that might not be tolerated by some modern university language departments.
I came across A.S. Cook's A Glossary of the Old Northumbrian Gospels-Lindisfarne
Gospels or Durham Book of 1894 in the British Library. The Yale Professor had given thirteen
references for the Northumbrian eorð erypel (e/c) and the Vulgate/Greek paralyticus and both of
I first tested Professor Cook's references against the first printing from the original manuscripts
edited by Joseph Stevenson of 1854, and then with William W. Skeat's Holy Gospels in Anglo-
Saxon, Northumbrian, and Old Mercian of 1887.
The first supported reference is St. Matthew Gospel Chapter 4. v. 24 - eorðcryppel. while the
equivalent passage in the Rushworth Gospels (Bodley: Rushworth 3946) written by Owun and
Farman (a priest at Harewood) uses the term Loman. The Rushworth Gospels also uses 'lama'
and 'lam' as variants.
The second supported reference (St. Matthew Ch. 8. v. 6) is
Old English cuoeð ðus driht cnæht min liges in
Vulgate et dicens domine puer meus iacet in
Old English hus eorð-cryppel mið yfle is gecunned ɫ gecosted
Vulgate domo paralyticus et male torquetur.
The King James Authorised Version published in 1611, constantly uses the phrase 'sick of the
palsy' or just 'palsy'.
And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented.
King James Authorised Version. (St. Matthew Ch. 8. v. 6)
While the blander, although more accurate version translated into 20th-century English New
English Bible and published in 1961, uses the word 'paralysed' throughout.
"Help. Sir," he said, "a boy of mine lies at home paralysed and racked with pain."
New English Bible. (St. Matthew Ch. 8. v. 6)
Chapter 2 of the Gospel of St. Mark contains five references. Unfortunately two of Cook's
references were not supported by the published text of William Walter Skeat (1835-1912).
Skeat's Holy Gospels in Anglo-Saxon, Northumbrian, and Old Mercian Versions
represents a very good reproduction of the Lindisfarne Gospels for its time in 1871 - 1887.
In total there are eleven e/c's and one example of the word: crypel. The general meaning
is eorð-cryp(p)el - i.e. paralyticus//
Cook's references were then tested against perhaps the definitive (black and white) facsimile
edition of the Lindisfarne Gospels: Evangeliorum Quattuor Codex Lindisfarnensis from
with a microfilm of the original manuscript held at the British Library. Overall eleven
additional supported references were found prior to the initial St. Luke's dictionary entry in
both dictionaries. Skeat's translation of eorð-cryppel is closer to the manuscript than Toller's eorþ-
crypel. Toller does not give any reference to Skeats' transcription. Elsewhere I have
found Toller's ASD to be invaluable. The OED gives no reference to the earlier word.
eorð translates as land or earth. For example, in the Old English saga Beowulf the
term eorð-cyning is used for king of the land and eorð-weal is used for earth-wall,
So the term eorð-cryppel could literally mean earth or land-crypel.
The last use of the word crypel (as quoted by both OED and ASD) in St. Luke does not
have eorð as a prefix, yet it is accompanied by the Vulgate paralytico. Therefore the basic
meaning appears to be the same. Clearly with a word by word translation, Aldred copied
his text consecutively. The single use of crypel in the last reference could represent a
historical abbreviation, not present at the outset of his project, e.g. telephone - phone.
It could also be a simple human error. Peter Hogg considers that it is most likely that crypel by
itself is the oldest form. As vocabulary tends to evolve by embellishment and increasing specificity,
the compound words are likely to be later. The term eorð-crypel may have had the 'poetic'
significance of someone who could only move themselves along at ground level on their hands
It appears that the use of eorð-cryppel might only have been in Northumbria, although it is
conceivable that it existed elsewhere. Hogg reckons that eorð-crypel seems to be unique to Britain.
If it was a very ancient compound one would expect to find it in other Germanic languages, but I
know of no other examples. [Cf: on the other hand, German Erd-beeren, strawberries, 'earth-
berries'; or Swedish (18th-century!) jord-päron, potatoes, 'earth-pears; or the Afrikaans aard-vark,
One might ask does this give reference to a pre-Christian healing ritual related to Mother Earth'
(Eorð) contained within these Gospels. Hogg states that as Northumbria was predominantly Celtic
in population and language aroud AD/CE 700, the belief may have been 'Celtic' rather than
'Germanic', perhaps we will never know. Until a century ago in Scandinavia sick children (infants)
would be passed through holes in trees or rocks, perhaps to symbolise a 're-birth'.
However, the word cripple and its variants have a long and broad linguistic history. In other
parts of Europe the letter c is mainly replaced by a k. Hence the Anglo-Saxon root is crip(p)el.
Contemporary cognates appear in nearly all Germanic and Old Nordic languages.
A translation from the Etymologisches Woerterbuch der Deutschen Sprache suggests
that the linguistic family includes :
"Middle-High-German" while krüpel, krup(p)el, via "Middle-German" from the "North-
German": "Middle-North-German" krop(p)el, krep(p)el. "Anglo-Saxon" crupel, cropel,
croepel, crepel. "Old Friesian" kreppel, cryp(p)el, crepel. "Old-Nordic" kryppill,
krypplinger. "High-German" kruepfel, "Bavarian" kropf, krapf.
The OED entry supports these references and adds further examples.
The Old Frisian Etymological Dictionary gives the linguistic root as the strong Germanic verb
kriapa which translates into English as 'creep'. It is considered by linguists to be Proto-Frisian
(early Dutch) or Proto-Germanic, i.e. it existed prior to written language because of its wide spead
early distribution throught northern Europe.
The Frisian Etymological Dictionary gives us many examples.
Old Norse krjúpa, Old English crēopan, Old Dutch. criepan also
* krūp-: Middle High German krūfen, Middle Low German krūpen,
Middle Dutch crūpen, cruypen;
* krupp-i-: Old English cryppan, Modern High German krüpfen 'bend';
* krupp-: Middle Low German kroppen 'bend';
* kraup-: Old English crȳpan, Middle Low German krēpen 'creep', Old Frisian krēpa 'creep, be
Modern Norwegian krøypa 'bend';
* krup-il-: Old English cryp(p)el, crepel 'mutilated, lame', Old Saxon crupel 'contractus', Middle
High German krüp(p)el, Middle Low German krōpel, krēpel, kroppel, kreppel, Old Frisian.
kreppel 'lame', Middle Dutch cropel, cru(e)pel, crepel 'mutilated';
* kreuk-: Old High German kriohhan, Middle High German kriechen 'creep';
*krauk-: Modern High German krauchen 'id.';
* kruk-: Middle Dutch croke, crueke, also crokel 'fold', Modern Dutch. kreuk 'id.' etc., but
semantically different from 'creep, bend'.
Apart from the Baltic form, similar words appear in Greek, viz. Gr. grūpós 'crooked, curved' <
*grūp-, etc., with a long vowel and yet another root final consonant. I doubt that these words are to
be compared with the above forms, because the semantics do not fit exactly and Gr. usually does
not share A2-words with North-European.
Then there is the Old Frisian krus
It actually seems possible to me that krus represents a direct loan from
Latin cruc-, whereas kriose (........) is the borrowing through an
intermediate Middle Low German krǖz(e) or Middle Dutch stage. The
sound /ǖ/ - no longer existing in Frisian after the unrounding of i-mutated
*ū to /ē/ - was substituted by the diphthong /iu/ which had an allophone
[io] before dentals, hence kriose.
Proto-Frisian: *kriosi, *krūs; From Middle Low German krǖz(e) (or Middle
Dutch cruys(e), cruus, cruse, cruce), French krus Latin. crux, cruc-. Also in:
Old English crūc, Old Saxon krūci, Old High German krūzi 'price, value',
Middle High German kriuz(e), Middle Low German krǖz(e), Middle Dutch
cruys(e), cruus, cruse, cruce.
Then there is the Germanic krumb an adjective meaning: 'crooked, curved'
The word eorð-cryppel is reminiscent of two illustrations in Giraldus Cambrensis [Gerald of Wales]
(1146-1223) The History and Topography of Ireland [Topographia Hiberniæ] (c.1187).
Characters from the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel's (1525?-1569) drawing, whose title has been
translated as titled Cripples, Fools and Beggars, (although created much later) depicts poor
disabled people who could have easily been described as eorðcryppels. I doubt that technology had
changed for the majority of poor disabled people in Bruegel's time. The technology of tenth-century
people with physical impairments is not likely to survive because of the durability of the materials
In order to understand the word eorð-cryppel in the context of the twenty first-century, it is
necessary to have an understanding of the history of a technology that has moved humanity
forwards with a greater efficiency and of course dignity.
The existence of word eorð-cryppel reveals something about the situation of people with
physical impairments in the Anglo-Saxon era long before the technology of the wheelbarrow
arrived in the West. The wheelbarrow, first used as a means to carry wounded soldiers,
came to Europe at a much later date during the Crusade Wars of the eleventh-century. The
earliest known Western visual representation of a wheelbarrow is from a stained glass
window at Chartres Cathedral (96 km from Paris), dated around 1220.
The oldest surviving picture of a wheelbarrow dates from about 100 CE. It is a frieze
relief from a tomb-shrine excavated near Hsüchow, China. The image depicts a
wheelbarrow with a person sitting on it.
In the English language of the eighteenth-century the term 'cripple' was first recorded as
a term of abuse in 1785. A sixpenny coin was referred to as a "cripple" because it was
‘commonly much bent and distorted’ .
The modern self propelled or electrically powered wheelchair has given many people with walking
impairments dignity they could not otherwise have and had not had access to before. However the
historic use of the word eorð-cryppel enables us to have a greater understanding of the history of
people with physical impairments. It's important to know your past in order to understand the
These days the word "cripple" is more commonly used as a metaphor against members
of disability communities. However the Anglo-Saxons used the term merely as a
The words and its variants discovered are:
eorð-cryp(p)il ni(s)s(e,-ne(s)s i.e. paralyticus//
cryp(p)el- (cryp(p)il-) ni(s)s(e,-ne(s)s i.e. paralysis//
Brown, Michelle P., (2003: 4, 87), The Lindisfarne Gospels - Society, Spirituality and the Scribe,
(London: The British Library).
Brown, Michelle P., (2001: 10, 23), In the beginning was the Word: books and faith in the Age of
Bede. Jarrow Lecture 26 May, 2000, (Jarrow : McCall).
Boutkan,Dirk and Siebinga, Sjoerd Michiel, (Eds.), (2005: 222 – 223), Old Frisian Etymological
Dictionary, (Leiden and Boston: Brill).
Cook, Albert Stanburrough, (1894: 31, 52), A Glossary of the Old Northumbrian Gospels-
Lindisfarne Gospels or Durham Book, (New York: Max Niemeyer: Halle).
Daniell, David, (2003:25), The Bible in English, (New Haven & London :Yale University Press).
De Beer, Esmond Samuel (Ed.), (1955: 310), The Diary of John Evelyn, Vol. III, (Oxford:
Farmer, John S. and Henley, W.E. (Eds.), (1966: 213), Slang and its Analogues Past and Present,
1890-1904, (New York: University Books).
Gibson, Walter S, (1977: fig 136, 184-5), Bruegel, (London: Thames and Hudson).
Giraldus Cambrensis [Gerald of Wales], (1982: 88, 117-118), The History and Topography of
Ireland, [Topographia Hiberniæ] O'Meara. (Portlaoise, Dolmen, North America, Humanities, John
J. and John Joseph).
Kendrick, T.D. et al (Ed.), (1956-60) Evangeliorum Quattuor Codex Lindisfarnensis, Oltun et
Keynes, Simon and Lapidge, Michael, (1983: 125-126, note 4 294-5), Alfred the Great: Asser's Life
of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources, (London: Penguin).
BIBLE: (1611,1998: 11), King James Authorised Version, (Cambridge: Cambridge University
BIBLE (1961: 14), New English Bible, etc. (Popular ed.), (UK: Oxford University Press;
Cambridge University Press).
Kamenetz, Herman L., (1969: 10-12), The Wheelchair Book: Mobility for the Disabled,
(Springfield, Illinois, USA, Charles C. Thomas).
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BIBLE (1961: 14), New English Bible, etc. (Popular ed.), (UK: Oxford University Press;
Cambridge University Press).
Partridge, Eric, (1950, 1995: 161-162), The Wordsworth Dictionary of the Underworld,
Northcote Toller, T., (Ed.), (1921: 135), Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Supplement, (Oxford: Clarendon
Simpson, D .P., (1959, 1968: 649), Cassell's Latin-English English-Latin Dictionary, (London:
Simpson, John Andrew and Weiner, Edmund S., (Eds.), (1988: Vol. XX , 203), The Oxford English
Dictionary, (2nd Ed.), (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
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English Dictionary, (2nd Ed.), (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Skeat, Rev. William Walter, (1871-87: iii, xiv, 67 ), The Holy Gospels in Anglo-Saxon,
Northumbrian, and Old Mercian Versions, (Cambridge: University Press: Cambridge).
Stapleton, Michael, (1983: 813), The Cambridge Guide to English Literature, (Cambridge
Stevenson, Joseph (Ed.), (1854: Vol 28, 56), The Lindisfarne and Rushworth Gospels, Now first
printed from the original manuscripts, (Durham: Publications of the Surtees Society).
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Gregory's Pastoral Care, (Oxford: Early English Text Society).
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Wrenn, C.L., (1953, 1980: 232), Beowulf, (revised by W.F.Bolton), (Exeter: University of Exeter
Bishop Eadfrith's Insular majuscule script in the Lindisfarne Gospel is arranged into two columns.
The left column will be referred to as the letter A while the right column will be referred to as the
letter B. Aldred wrote his Anglo-Saxon Glossary above Eadfrith's Latin script. Word references are
eorðcryppel: St. Matthew 4:24, 8:6, 9:6,* 18:7,* St. Mark 2:3,* 2:5,
St. Luke 5:18, 4:20.*
eorðcryple St. Mark 2:9, * 2:14. *
eorðcrypple St. Matthew 9:2,* 9:6, * St. Mark 2:3, 2:9, 2:10.
eorðcrypel St. Mark 2:4.
cryple St. Luke 5:24
crypelnise St. Luke 5:1.*
Underline and * = Found by Cook and not currently by the author
Found by author 14 not by Cook 6
Found by A. S. Cook: 13 not found by author 4