The Old English meaning of "to dwell" (dwellan) is to mislead.

Can we trace the gradual shift from this original sense to that of Modern English: to reside, to inhabit ?

3 Answers 3


You are correct to be confused Alain. The history is more complicated than The Online Etymological Dictionary makes it out to be; I discovered the complications merely by happy chance.

Let's mentally situate ourselves first. The time we're concerned with is the opening of the 9th century; the place is the North Sea, where Charlemagne had just finished submitting the Frisians to his will, destroying their naval power, and hence opening Europe to the raids of the fierce people known as the Vikings.

But I'm sure you already knew that. And I'm sure you knew already that the Vikings' first incursions into England began in 800, and that by 865 they were staying on longer and longer sojourns, to eventually set up kingdoms from Northumberland to East Anglia, collectively known as the Danelaw. They would not be forced out of England till the middle of the 10th century, in 945. In other words, the Viking Norsemen were intimate with the Saxons, in their own land, for more than a 100 years — ample time to influence English in many ways, since after all the Old Norse the Vikings spoke was reasonably cognate to it, both being of Proto-Germanic.

As the book I am just reading, A Historical Introduction to the English Language, writes:

Scandinavian influence on English went a good deal further than place names, however. The English were not exterminated by the Scandinavian settlers, but the latter were sufficiently numerous to influence English speech. [...] Old English and Old Norse were still reasonably similar, and Englishmen and Danes could probably understand each other, and pick up each other's language, without too much difficulty. [...] There would be Englishmen speaking Old Norse, and Danes speaking Old English, and when they didn't know a word in the other language they would use a word from their own, perhaps giving it a pronunciation and inflections that they thought appropriate to the other language. [Or] [s]ometimes they would a use a word in the other language to give it the meaning of the corresponding form in their own language.

According to the book, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction, by a certain Winfred P. Lehmann, the above linguistic process is known as extension, and it is apparently precisely what happened to the word dwellan, to which Old English bequeathed us dwell. From p. 264:

In a further type of borrowing, only the meaning of a linguistic entity may be changed. OE eorl "earl" meant "brave warrior"; the present meaning was taken over from Old Norse, where the word indicated a rank of nobility. Similarly, OE dwellan meant "lead astray" but was modified in meaning by the ON dvelja "abide" to present-day "dwell."

As to the etymology of dvelja itself? Well, the forbidding An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology (ed. Anatoly Liberman) offers the following, from a scholar's reconstruction of the PIE root from a hypothesized Greek cognate:

Wyld...offers an outstanding analysis of dwell and its cognates. He arrives at the conclusion that the sense 'hinder, delay' "is the connecting link between that of 'wandering' and 'dwelling'; 'to wander, having lost one's way; to linger, delay in doubt which way to go', & finally, 'to remain where one is'" On the strength of [the Greek] θολόζ or θόλοζ 'sepia' (a dark fluid, ink) and θολερόζ 'muddy, troubled' (said about water, and son on), he glosses *dwal ~ dwel as 'go astray in the dark.' The sense 'obscure, dark, lacking clearness' could develop into both 'delay' and 'folly.'

I personally favor the etymology. *dwal- could have developed into dveljan 'delay, linger', by being transformed into a meaning like "to be in the state of blindly groping in the dark", while dwellan 'to mislead' might have been developed in the sense of "to put someone in the dark" / "pull the wool over their eyes".

  • +1 +accepted answer. "Réponse magistrale". Here it is in my Old Norse dictionary dveljask => to stay. That explanation makes much more sense. Many thanks also for the references. I'm starting to like this site a lot. May 20, 2011 at 23:05
  • You mean you didn't??
    – Thursagen
    May 27, 2011 at 6:51

Absolutely. Etymology Online offers:

The Old English usage of dwellan meant "to mislead".

By the 12th century, dwell meant "hinder, delay, or to linger". The phrase to dwell upon also dates from this period.

By the mid-13th century dwell meant "to make a home".

By the mid-14th century, dwelling was being used as a noun to mean "place of residence".

  • Thx @HaL. Indeed I did not ask on EL&U without looking up a number of etymological dictionaries, and that included etymonline of course - which as usual appears to have compiled a number of different sources. The logic that leads from "to mislead" to "to reside" is still obscure to me. +1 for the answer though. Apr 13, 2011 at 15:22
  • @Alain: I presume the relatively sharp transition in usage between the 12th century and the mid-13th century focused more on the use of delay and linger to roughly mean rest when using dwell. By that logic, "a place where people dwell" could have meant "a place where people linger". The transition could have been thus: mislead -> delay -> linger -> rest -> stay -> inhabit -> dwell (modern usage).
    – HaL
    Apr 13, 2011 at 15:28
  • I see the sharp transition between OE "to mislead" and 12c "to delay/linger". Misleading someone may hinder them, but that's not the primary meaning of 'mislead'.
    – Mitch
    Apr 13, 2011 at 17:34

Let us trace the word's etymology back from the very beginning, so we can explain why the meaning changed.

The word originally came from the Old High German word twellen, which meant 'to prevent.'.

From this word, the Old Norse word dvelja was derived, which meant 'to delay, tarry.'
Then, was derived the Old Saxon word bidwellian, which meant 'to prevent';
Reaching Old English, dwellan, with the meaning of 'to seduce, get lost, to hinder'.
However, from Old English, Middle English derived the word dwellen, but with two different meanings: 'to lead astray, abide.'

The meaning for dwellen to mean 'to abide', was taken from the Old English dwellan's meaning of 'to hinder'. From there, we can now derive today's meaning of 'to abide, reside.'

We can now clearly see the slow change of the meaning of 'dwell' through the ages.



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