Words about words: Bask

Reproduction by Bernard Quaritch
Plate from Confessio Amantis (1393)

Asker, Norway

The word bask is a verb that comes from the Old Norse baðask, the reflexive of baða (“to bathe”) and means to bathe, particularly in warm water or be sufficed with blood. The letter ð is the lower-case letter Eth, used in Old and Middle English as well as in modern Icelandic and Faroese to represent the voiced “th” sound.

Bask first appeared in 1393 in Confessio Amantis (“The Lover’s Confession”), a Middle English poem of 33,000 lines by John Gower (1330-1408). Gower was a contemporary and personal friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, best known for The Canterbury Tales, perhaps the greatest work of 14th-century English literature. Before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1439, Confessio Amantis was among the most copied manuscripts (59 copies), along with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (72 copies). Line 239 of Confessio Amantis reads: “The child lay bathend in her blood? And for the blood was hote and warme He basketh him about therinne.”

In As You Like It, a comedy written around 1600, Shakespeare has the character Jacques remark, “A foole, Who laid him downe, and bask’d him in the Sun” (Act II, Scene VII “In the Forest”). Thereafter, the word bask became frequent in literature. In 1725, Alexander Pope, after Shakespeare the second most-often quoted writer in English, completed a translation of the Odyssey that included the line, “The seer, Basks on the breezy shore.”

In 1791, Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, a friend of the American Revolution, wrote Letter to a Member of the National Assembly (of the French Revolution) that included the observation of a person “Basking in the sunshine of unmerited fortune.” In 1867, English historian Edward A. Freeman published The History of the Norman Conquest of England, in which he criticized “Traitors basking in the royal smiles,” perhaps a succinct summary of an aspect of the political innuendo of 1066.

This article originally appeared in the July 31, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.