August 17, 2016

Case File #016.08.17: OAF

Once upon a time, people believed that elves and fairies sometimes snatched human children from their cribs or beds, and when abducting human offspring, the mischievous sprites supposedly swapped them with physically frail or mentally stunted children from their own broods. Up until the mid-sixteenth century, people in English-speaking countries generally used the noun changeling when referring to a child believed to have been left behind by the elves or fairies. But by the time 1600 rolled around, English speakers had also started using oph (sometimes spelled auf or aulf) as a term for such a child, oph being an Anglicized form of the Middle Norwegian álfr—or perhaps, say some etymologists, the related Icelandic álfur—which literally meant “elf  but was often used to mean “silly person, fool, or imbecile.” Thus, if a child was a bit peculiar or had some mild physical deformity, its parents could invoke the word oph and thereby suggest that the youngster was not human but was instead the offspring of an elf or a fairy. During the first twenty or thirty years of the seventeenth century, however, the word's form evolved into the contemporary oaf, and rather than being used in reference to an ersatz human child, the noun came to generally mean “a slow-witted, uncultured, or clumsy person.”

©2016 Michael R. Gates