Some Old Words and Masonry

By Brother Michael Hopkins



It strikes a new Mason that our rituals use many old words not now in common usage, if used at all. Before considering those words individually, it seems best to consider a part of the history of the English language so as to better understand how they may have arisen.





Julius Caesar led an expedition into what we now call Great Britain in 55 B.C. as part of his Gallic Wars. He installed a friendly king, received tribute, and returned to Gaul. For the first ninety years, the island was not occupied by Roman forces, but served as a client state to Rome through tributes and hostages. There were many tribes on the island and a marked difference among them in the level of acceptance of Roman rule. By 40 A.D., because of rising efforts at independence from Rome, conquest and occupation began under Emperor Claudius and continued for many years. Roman rule was established in the south, but Rome never succeeded in capturing Scotland. In 122 A.D., the northern limits of Roman influence were drawn by the construction of Hadrian's wall, a stone base and stone wall running between the River Tyne in the east to Solway Firth on the Irish Sea. Later attempts to expand influence northward were without success.


The Romans encountered a variety of Celtic tribes. The Celts were a wide-ranging people, and in the years from 500 BC they are found in France (where they were called Gauls), surely in Ireland and Scotland (Gaels), in the Iberian peninsula (today Spain and Portugal) and as far east as central Anatolia (today central Turkey). When St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, he was addressing a former Celtic tribe which had apparently given up its language. The Celtic tribes did not call themselves Britons nor their island Britain. The earliest attested name for Britain is Albion, a Greek form of a Celtic word.1 Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century A.A., wrote, “Its former name was Albion; but at a later period, all the islands, of which we shall just now briefly make mention, were included under the name of Britanniæ."2 The name Albion continues as the modern Scottish Gaelic name for Scotland, Alba.


We do not know what many of the Celtic tribes called themselves, while we continue to know the island by a modern version of its Latin name Brittania. The Romans called Scotland Caledonia, a term we can still find in romantic or poetic representations of Scotland. A symbolic figure Britannia, akin to America's Statue of Liberty or Uncle Sam, continues to be used on British stamps and currency. Also, the patriotic song 'Rule, Britannia!' is strongly associated with the British navy and continues to be sung.


There are no existing literary texts of the Celtic languages spoken at the time of the Roman invasions. These languages have had little effect on the English language. Probably Latin was spoken by Britons in the towns where they came into frequent contact with the Romans. Celtic was likely spoken in rural areas, and it survives today only in parts of Wales and in highland Scotland.It could be fairly said that Celtic has been in decline for two thousand years.





As Rome itself began to be invaded by barbarian tribes its soldiers and administrators withdrew from Britannia, with a final exit in the early part of the fifth century. The settlement of Germanic tribes began almost immediately after this withdrawal, so soon that it is reasonably inferred that there was some settlement even as the Romans remained on the island. These tribes of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes came from the northern German plain near the district we now know as Schleswig-Holstein and likely also from the mainland and Jutland areas of modern Denmark.4


We call these Germanic tribes by the term Anglo-Saxon. This is actually a misleading term, as it suggests an amalgamation of those tribes, but is historically inaccurate. The term as a description of the earliest times of the English language is also misleading as it suggests a language different from, not just earlier in the development of, English; thus, the term Old English is preferred.5 The Angles settled in the area north of the Thames over the greater part of what is now England into the Scotish Lowlands with a capital at York. The Jutes settled in Kent and the Saxons in the rest of England south of the Thames with the exception of the extreme southwest (Cornwall) which remained inhabited by Celts.


While interaction, even violent, with Celts was encountered, the Celts for the most part were isolated geographically. In the areas where the Germanic tribes settled they quickly became dominant politically and were also leaders in learning and culture. In the first centuries, the Angles dominated and from them the whole country came to be called Englaland and the language Englisc.6


There are no existing literary texts from the earliest period. In the ninth century, supremacy moved to the West Saxons with their capital at Winchester, and from this later period there are writings which have come down to us from Alfred the Great (849-899), the abbot Ælfric (955-1010), and of particular note the epic poem Beowulf. The author of Beowulf is unknown, nor is its dating certain. Author J.R.R. Tolkien believed it to have been written in the eighth century. A translation by the Nobel laureate poet Seamus Heaney has made it accessible to the modern reader and it is thus recommended to lovers of the arts and literature.





The term Old English refers to the period of the English language from the latter part of the fifth century to about 1100. While it can be read today only by language specialists, there are many words a non-specialist can discern: e.g., bidan, to await; bitan, to bite; gripan, to seize; risan, to rise; tellan, to tell; and tǽcan, to teach.7 Other words would be wulf=wolf, helpan=help, and tácn=token.8 Old English was an inflected language, meaning that the endings of nouns, pronouns, and adjectives changed by grammatical case, number and gender. The form of a verb varied by voice, mood, tense, number and person.9 An example may be given for illustration:


Sē blinda beorn bǽrndon mīn scip.

(translation: The blind man burned my ship.)

A blindan beornas bǽrndon mīne scipu.

(Those blind men burned my ships.)10


The above passage shows the changes in adjectives and nouns as the tense moves from singular to plural. It also illustrates that Old English used some letters which do not have a modern English equivalent. These letters are from the runic alphabets used to write Germanic languages before the adoption of the Latin alphabet. In the above, ǽ is a runic grapheme called the ash (aesc) and represents the sound of the letter “a” in our modern word had. It is still used as a full letter in the alphabets used to write modern Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic. The runic letter þ is called a thorn, representing the sound of "th" in our modern word this.11 The thorn remains in use only in the modern Icelandic alphabet. Experience has shown that American speakers, who are used to a simplified grammatical structure, routinely struggle with inflected languages like this when attempting to learn them.


Late in the Old English period new groups invaded the country. The first were Scandinavian. Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes, called Vikings (the cognate word in Old English wícing means pirate), began to attack around 800 and moved from single-ship piratical ventures to large-scale conquest in the ensuing years. The Vikings nearly conquered all of England, but King Alfred held the South and West, winning a decisive battle at Chippenham in 878. A boundary between Alfred’s lands and the Danelaw extended from London northwest to the mouth of the River Mersey just north of Wales. One hundred years later, the English recaptured the Danelaw area, but in the interim there was extensive Scandinavian settlement.


One feature of Scandinavian influence is that they settled in and interacted with English-speaking inhabitants. The Old Norse language they spoke was similar enough to Old English that the two groups could probably understand each other. The way in which two languages influence one another is called interference by linguists. We can envision the bilingual interference which likely occurred in this case:


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. Sometimes they would give a word in the other language but give it the meaning of the corresponding form in their own language. And no doubt there were children of mixed marriages who spoke an intermediate dialect.”12


The result of all this was that Old Norse died out in England, but after a great mixing of the languages.


One area of this mixing is seen in phonological evidence; that is, where words are nearly identical but are pronounced differently. Old English often has a [ch] sound where Old Norse kept [k], as in the words church or ditch in English, but kirk or dike in Scandinavian. Similarly, [sk] in the Germanic language gave way to [sh] in English, as in shirt/skirt and shrub/scrub.13 Today, the Norse form is more common in areas where there was greater Viking settlement.


Even when phonological evidence is missing, we can often be confident that a word has a Scandinavian origin. The words anger, to die and ill all came from Old Norse; Old English used the early forms of wrath, starve and evil. Sometimes the Old English word form was used, but with a different meaning. The Old English word for bread was hlāf, from which comes our loaf, while their bréad meant fragment; but the Old Norse braud did in fact mean bread. The majority of words which came to English from the Scandinavian were simple words such as fog, knife, sky, skin, dirt, fellow, etc. Some grammatical words are also from Scandinavian, as the conjunctions though, till, and until, and the pronouns they, them, and their.14


It is common to date Norman French influence on English from 1066, but actually that influence began earlier. In 1002, King Æthelred married a Norman wife, and his son Edward the Confessor was brought up in France with many Norman nobles coming with him when he ascended the throne in 1042. After the Norman Conquest all the important government and church positions were held by Normans. They constituted a clear upper class and felt no inducement to learn English. The king and nobles held lands in Normandy and other parts of northern Europe, and often spent as much time there as in England.


The loss of Normandy by King John in 1204 had important consequences in that nobles were compelled to give up either their French or English holdings; in other words, to decide whether to be English or French. The chief result was that the ruling classes began to learn English. English had continued to be spoken by the common people, but there had been no English literature written in the early Norman period. Literature was in Latin or in Anglo-Norman, a dialect of Norman French.


Another feature affecting linguistic influence is that French was structurally different from English, and thus resisted linguistic attraction much more than did the Scandinavian languages. English borrowed freely from the vocabulary of French, but it did not in general borrow its grammatical patterns. Thus French had little influence on how English forms plurals and past tenses, nor did it generally affect word order or how sentences are formed.15





Finally, after the loss of Normandy, Norman political and linguistic influence in France waned with respect to the rise of Paris and Central French. The difference between Norman and Central French is reflected in loan-words adopted into Middle English: catch, cattle and warden are from the Norman, while chase, chattel and guardian come from Central French.16 English also adopted many phrases from French, such as: plenty of (plenté de), tender age (tendre âge), because of (par cause de), to the contrary (au contraire) and if need be (si besoin est).17


We call the form of English in the period from about 1150 to about 1500 Middle English. Literature began to be written in English only in the fourteenth century, so we lack attestation in the earlier two centuries. Sievers infers that Middle English “differs from that of the older period by the gradual decay of inflection forms, and the introduction of French elements.”18 The loss of inflectional endings meant that fixed word order was necessary to distinguish sense, as between the “the man killed the lion” and “the lion killed the man.” Another change was the loss of grammatical gender. English speakers learning modern French may wonder why tree (un arbre) is masculine, yet an army (une armée) is feminine, or that in German a girl (das Madchen) is neuter. In English, the loss of grammatical gender led to a replacement by natural gender.19





There is no convenient date to demark the end of the Middle English period into early Modern English. The advent of printing in England by Caxton in 1476 and the gradual spread of education had a great effect, particularly in the development of a standard written English. When Chaucer was writing in the late fourteenth century, it was possible to tell the region a writer came from. One hundred years later, this was not possible. In pronunciation, we have the development of class dialect: the recognition that dialects may owe their existence to social rather than to geographical causes. One of the characteristics of the modern period is the adoption of words from Latin and Greek during the Renaissance, some of which have been derided as fussy and unnecessary. George Orwell expressed this view in a 1946 essay:


Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers.20


As more and more contact arose with other countries and cultures, words came into English, such as tea from China and shawl from Persia. Many of these words may have been borrowed because they were the words for products in trade from foreign countries.21 Of course, the modern English period is not yet completed, and we continue to see an effect (some argue deterioration) on our language from mass communications and social media.





By the time a new Entered Apprentice has been initiated and attended his first stated meeting, he has encountered several words and phrases he is not familiar with. Mentors encounter this immediately in their early mentoring meetings or ritual instructions when a candidate may ask what that phrase is we use at the end of prayers, or what a cowan is. Below we will deal with the words: hele, mote and cowan.


Hele is derived from Old English. One dictionary gives helan, as to conceal, hide or cover. It provides a sample sentence from Old English, “Ic hael miné scylda” (I concealed my sins).22 The same verb appears in Old Saxon and Old High German, and there are similar verbs in other older forms of Germanic languages. 23 The word continued in use into Middle English. Chaucer used it twice in The Canterbury Tales, written in the 1380's-'90's, in the sense of concealing or keeping a secret. The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (up to 1700) lists:


Hele, Heil(l, v.1 Also: heile, heyl(l). [ME. heyle (c 1440), heele, hele(n, OE. helian, wk. vb., to conceal (also str. vb. helan, p.p. holen). Still widely current, as heal, etc., in Eng. and Sc. dialects.]


A second meaning is given “to cover; to put a covering on or over,” with several passages from attested use, including one from John Barbour’s poem The Bruce (1375): "Quhen snaw had helit all the land"" (When snow has covered all the land). Barbour was a contemporary of Chaucer and the first major named literary figure to write in Scots.24 The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue also notes that hale/hail developed from 1520 on as a variant of hele, with the sound of the vowel of hail.25 The Scottish National Dictionary attests to the contined use of the word, primarily as heal, but with the older variants also. The Oxford English Dictionary lists hele/heal as obsolete, “except dialectically,” giving an interesting attestation from an 1894 ad in the West Sussex Times, “For Sales a Block of Four Freehold Brick-Built Slate-healed Modern Cottages.”26 Another dictionary gives a modern use in the phrase “heel in,” used in gardening, as “to set a plant in the ground and cover its roots.27


Most Worshipful Brother Yoshio Washizu, former Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Japan, has related the history of the use and pronunciation of hele in scholarship hardly to be surpassed. M.W. Washizu relates that:


An eminent authority on philology, not himself a Freemason, wrote to Bro. Arthur Betts who was working on a paper on hele some 80 years ago: "As to hele, from Old English, helian, to conceal, hide, the modern pronunciation would be like our modern heal and the Oxford [English] Dictionary means ... something of the same sound. You certainly would not get hail in modern English from this, unless perchance it came from some Scottish source."28


M.W. Washizu also states, “It seems that originally the three words hele, conceal and reveal used in our ritual were likewise meant to rhyme.”29


Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1913 edition, provides a definition for a hellier: one who heles or covers; a tiler, slater, or thatcher.30 Given how names are so often derived from occupations, it is reasonable inferred that the patronymics Hilliar, Hillier, Hillyer and perhaps other variations had ancestors who tiled or thatched roofs. The Grand Lodge of Maine keeps online membership records from 1820 to the present. In those records, there are six persons named Hillier. Six others are named Hilliard, which may also derive from the occupation.31


A church friend of this writer attended his first stated meeting in September 2015. As we sat for supper, he asked what phrase was used in response to the Chaplain’s blessing. In “So mote it be, what means mote?” The word also comes from Old English. It meant either “be allowed, may” or “be obliged, must.”32 It retains this dual meaning through its lexical history. The Oxford English Dictionary lists mote as archaic, either expressing permission or possibility=may, with the last example of use being 1812, or expressing necessity or obligation=must, with no example of use after 1685.33


The Scottish dictionaries are richer. A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (up to 1700) gives the “may” meaning of mot/mote/moit and several other variations, in expressions of a wish, supplication, request, proposal or suggestion as much the most frequently recorded use. One example given is from a 1420 chronicle, “Thare sawlys till Paradys mot pas,” wishing that their souls may go to heaven. A later example, from a Scottish Proverb ca. 1598 is given as an example of the meaning of necessity or inevitability: “A bairne most creip er he gang,” expressing the truth that a child must crawl before he runs.34


The later Scottish National Dictionary notes that mote is archaic and obsolete in English. Interestingly, it does give a variant mat (also matt) used in expressions wishing one well or ill. Its latest example is from 1915, “Here's to mysel', says I to mysel', And muckle guid mat it do me.”35


Of course, the famous Masonic reference is from the Halliwell Manuscript, most commonly known as the Regius Poem (ca. 1390) of the Middle English period, “Amen! amen! so mot hyt be! Say we so all per charyté.”36


The word cowan is different from the last two in that its origin is obscure. A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (up to 1700) states that fact, giving a definition of “one who builds dry stone walls or dykes.”37 The word appears in the First Schaw Statutes of 1598:


Item, that na maister or farow of craft ressaue ony cowanis to wirk in his societie or cumpanye, nor send nane of his servands to wirk w'cowanis, under the pane of twentie punds sa oft as ony persone offendis heirintill.38


This reinforces that the proper use of mortar was a guild secret, highly valued by operative masons. The later Scottish National Dictionary adds the variations of cowane and cowaner and gives the same definition as the older source, adding that the word is used contemptuously of one who does the work of a mason without having served an apprenticeship. Attestations are of interest. A late eighteenth century article in Edinburgh Magazine is quoted:


The walls of the dwelling house are, perhaps, mason work, but the other buildings are reared by . . . cowans (common labourers), with clay instead of lime for mortar.39


Also, from an 1830's source:


Peter McCorkle was a kind of half-bred mason, or cowan, as the country folks call them, who had never served a regular apprenticeship, and did not pretend to execute any ornamental piece of masonry.40


The later Scottish National Dictionary also adds the term we use as Masons, as one who is outside the Brotherhood, and also the sense of “[a]n unskilled or uninitiated person; an amateur, a bungler.”41


The English lexical sources generally follow the Scottish. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the same primary definitions, citing from 1707 that Mother Kilwinning Lodge terms cowans as masons “without the word.” It also cites a 1767 edition of James Anderson’s Constitutions of the Free-Masons (Anderson died in 1739) as saying, “The Working Masons ... ever will have their own Wages ... let Cowans do as they please.” It also adds an additional slang definition, suggesting a general slang use in British English, of “[a] sneak, an inquisitive or prying person.”42





The new Mason will learn that Masonry uses some old words, perhaps archaic words, as part of its ritual. Those words are part of the charm of Masonry, but also should be used to help imprint on the memory wise and serious truths. It is an important task of lodge ritual instruction to help the new Mason understand those words not just as isolated definitions, but within their Masonic and general historical context. A cowan would not have that understanding, so hele it not, so mote it be!


1 Eilert Ekwall, "Early names of Britain", Antiquity, Vol. 4, #14, 1930, p. 149–156.

2 Pliny the Elder, (John Bostock and H.T. Riley, translator and editor), The Natural History, (London), Taylor and Francis, 1855, chapter 30. 

3 G.L. Brook, A History of the English Language, (London), Andre Deutsch Limited, 1958, 40. 

4 Charles Barber, The English Language: a Historical Introduction, (Cambridge), Cambridge University Press, 1993, 120.

5 Brook, 42-43.

6 George T. Flom, Introductory Old English Grammar and Reader, (Boston), D.C. Heath and Company,1930, 3.

7 Flom, 94,116.

8 Eduard Sievers (translated and edited by Albert S. Cook), An Old English Grammar, (Boston), Ginn and Co, 1899.

9 Tom McArthur, editor, The Oxford Companion to the English Language, (Oxford), Oxford University Press, 1992, 722-6.

10 Morton W. Bloomfield and Leonard Newmark, A Linguistic Introduction to the History of English, (New York), Alfred A Knopf, 1965, 155.

11 Brook, 43.

12 Barber, 130.

13 Barber, 130-1.

14 Barber, 131-4.

15 Orrin W., Old English and its Closest Relatives, (Stanford), Stanford University Press, 1992, 3.

16 Brook, 47-8.

17 Bloomfield and Newmark, 181.

18 Sievers, 1.

 19 Brook, 51.

20 George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 1946, available at

21 Brook, 54-8.

22 Joseph Bosworth, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, (Oxford), Clarendon Press, 1882, 525.

23 Sievers, 27.

24 The Dictionary of the Scots Language, .

25 The Dictionary of the Scots Language, .

26 Oxford English Dictionary, (Oxford), Clarendon Press, 1989, Vol. VII, 111.

27 The Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary, (New York), Oxford University Press, 1995

28 Brother Yoshio Washizu, “Notes on ‘Hele’”, The Philalethes, June 2000, pp. 57-60.

29 Washizu.



32 Bosworth, 699.

33 Oxford English Dictionary, Vol. IX, 1119.

34 The Dictionary of the Scots Language, .

35 The Dictionary of the Scots Language, .

36 .

37 The Dictionary of the Scots Language, .

39 The Dictionary of the Scots Language, .

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid.

42 Oxford English Dictionary, Vol. III, 1082-3. 

Published in the Maine Mason magazine published by the Grand Lodge of Maine, 2015

Reprinted with permission of the author


Copyright © 2015 by Michael Hopkins

All Rights Reserved.