v. (past)

(1) (*sparred) ‘sprang’;  (2) (*sped(e) (him)) ‘hastened’

(Modern English (1) spar; (2) speed)


Norse derivation is one possibility if the v. at Gaw 1444 (‘For þre at þe fyrst þrast he þryʒt to þe erþe, / And sparred forth good sped boute spyt more’) is emended to *sparred: (1) The reconstructed reading <sparred> (Menner 1926: 398, followed by TG 130: 1442n, TGD 1442n and most subsequent editions) identifies the v. with MED's sparren 'to go quickly, rush, dart, spring (= OED s.v. spar v.2). It fits the sense context at Gaw 1444 well, but its etymology is difficult. Two main Gmc sources have been proposed and neither is entirely transparent: (a) It has sometimes been derived (thus ODEE and in part MED) from (i) an OE wk 1 v. non-WS sperran, late WS spyrran 'to strike' < *sparrjan-  (on the evidence for these forms see further Dance), which ODEE connects with OIcel sperra in the sense ‘to stretch out (the legs)’, sperrask ‘to struggle (by putting the feet out)’; hence it posits a basic meaning ‘to strike out with the feet or a weapon’. (ii) Alternatively, ME sparren could derive directly from ON sperra(sk) (thus apparently McGee 348). (iii) MED additionally adduces input from an early Fr v. represented by 17c. Fr esparer ‘to kick’ (also perh < a Gmc *sparrjan-). (b) The ulterior etymology of OE spyrran and ON sperra is very difficult to trace; the two are not usually connected (and the OE is very little discussed at all) and there is no clear evidence for a PGmc *spar- with a basic sense of ‘strike’ or ‘kick’. Thus ON sperra has instead been derived on the stem of the n. OIcel sparri ‘spar, gag’ < PGmc *sparrōn, cp. ME sparre, MLG spar(re), OHG sparro, the original sense therefore being ‘to raise spars’; formally identical are therefore OHG sperran, MDu sperren ‘to bar, block’ etc. But if one accepts a semantic development of this sort behind the ON v. (‘to raise a spar’ > ‘to stretch out (the legs), struggle (by putting the feet out)’), then a similar generalization of ‘to block (with a spar), to shut firmly’ > ‘to shove (off) with the feet, thrust (oneself) forcefully’ seems no less plausible.  And in that case ME sparren ‘to go quickly, spring’ (etc.) might be explained as etymologically identical with ME sparren ‘to lock, close up; shut, lock, bar, close, exclude; enclose, conceal; block, stop up’ (i.e. MED’s sparren v.1, OED’s spar v.1), another evident derivation on PGmc *sparrōn ‘spar’; cp. MLG, MDu sparren.  ME spar- forms are attested as early as AW.Cleo, and may go back to OE -spar- as in gesparrian, besparrian. That there is clear semantic overlap between the ideas of (strong) movement belonging to the two ME sparren verbs is indicated inter alia by MED’s entry for spar n.1 ‘a thrust or blow’, for which it suggests derivation either from sparren v.1 or v.2.  This etymology makes for a better formal match to Gaw sparred than OE Angl sperran, which requires the late ME change of /er/ > /ar/ for which there is otherwise only slender evidence in the Gaw MS. (2) Gaw 1444 has also been read differently, however, as containing <sped> or <spede> (thus Madden, Morris, CA, Knott 1915: 103, TG (original printing), GDS) and thus identified with a form of ME speden in MED’s sense (6), i.e. ‘to travel swiftly’, < OE (ge)spēdan ‘to prosper, succeed’.

PGmc Ancestor

(1a) *sparrjan-; (1b) *sparr-; (2) *spōdi-

Proposed ON Etymon (OIcel representative)

(1a) sparra 'to stretch out (the legs)’, sperrask ‘to struggle (by putting the feet out)’; (1b) sparra ‘to raise the spars in a house; to stretch out the legs like rafters’, sperrask ‘to struggle by putting the feet out like spars’
(ONP (1a) sperra (2) (vb.))

Other Scandinavian Reflexes

(1a) Far sperra, Icel sperra, Norw sperra, Dan spærre, Sw spärra

OE Cognate

(1a) sperran, spyrran ‘to strike’; (1b) spar- (as in gesparrian, besparrian 'to bar, shut'); (2) (ge)spēdan ‘to prosper, succeed’

Phonological and morphological markers

Summary category



(1) ME sparren ‘to go quickly’ (etc.) is given by MED from a handful of NW(M) alliterative poems, viz. Pe, WA and DT. OED’s subsequent attestations begin in 1570, but the sense here (‘to strike with the feet or spurs; to fight’) is not quite the same and the earliest application is to fighting cocks. (2) ME speden ‘to travel swiftly’ (etc.) is common and widespread.

Occurrences in the Gersum Corpus

Gaw 1444

Menner's (1926: 398) reading of the v. at Gaw 1444 as <sparred> 1926: 398 is followed by many editions (see further etymological discussion).


Dance *sparred; (1) MED sparren (v.2) , OED spar (v.2) , ODEE spar (2); (1a) de Vries sperra (2), Mag. sperra (2), Orel *sparrjanan, AEW spierran, FEW Germanismes *sparrjan; (1b) MED sparren (v.1) , MED sparre (n.) , OED spar (v.1) , OED spar (n.1) , Orel *sparrōn, Kroonen *spar(r)an-, AEW ge-sparrian, SPS 402, DOE besparrod, EPNE *spearr, *spær; (2) MED spēden (v.) , OED speed (v.) , Kroonen *spōdi-, AEW spœ̄dan