Acker: a land, a river, a swamp

The OED lists two meanings for Acker:

Acker, n. 1

Etymology: Origin uncertain; perhaps a variant of eagre n. (although this is first attested later; compare the form agar at that entry).

In later use English regional (Yorkshire).

1. A strong or turbulent current in the sea; a flood tide. Obsolete.▸ 1440   Promptorium Parvulorum (Harl. 221) 8   Akyr of the see flowynge [1499 aker], impetus maris.▸ a1460   Knyghthode & Bataile (Pembr. Cambr. 243) 2775 (MED)   Wel knowe thei [sc. mariners] the Reume if it arise, An aker is it clept..Whos myght ther may no ship or wynd withstonde.1552   R. Huloet Abcedarium Anglico Latinum   Aker of the sea, whiche preventeth [= precedes] the flowde or flowynge, impetus maris.

 2. British regional. A current in a river, etc.; a ripple, furrow, or disturbance of the surface of water, a ‘cat’s paw’ (see cat’s paw n. 3). Now rare.

“acker, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2021. Web. 9 November 2021.

Acker, n. 2

Etymology: Origin unknown.

1. A piastre. historical in later use.1937

2. gen. Usually in plural. Coins, banknotes, cash; money.1939   

“acker, n.2.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2021. Web. 9 November 2021.

There is one sense for Aker, n.:

Etymology: < Anglo-Norman aker (1318 in the passage translated in quot. a1616), of unknown origin.


A servant responsible for receiving and looking after vessels from the kitchen.

“aker, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2021. Web. 9 November 2021.

and there is Acre, n.:

Etymology: Cognate with Old Frisian ekker , ēker , ikker , akker field, cultivated field, measure of land, Middle Dutch acker cultivated field, measure of land (in Old Dutch only in place names; Dutch akker ), Old Saxon akkar , akar field, cultivated field (Middle Low German acker , also cultivated land collectively, measure of land), Old High German ackar , acchar , akar cultivated field, field, countryside (as opposed to town) (Middle High German acker , German Acker ), Old Icelandic akr cultivated land, field, cornfield (sometimes used in opposition to enclosed homefield), crop, Old Swedish aker , akker cultivated land, field, crop (Swedish åker ), Old Danish akær cultivated land (Danish ager ), Gothic akrs field < the same Indo-European base as classical Latin ager piece of land, territory, country, region, farm, estate, cultivated land, soil, countryside (as opposed to town), ancient Greek ἀγρός field, farm, cultivated land, countryside (as opposed to town), Sanskrit ajra plain, open country, ultimately < the same Indo-European base as classical Latin agere (see act v.), although the precise type of formation shown and the stages of its development are uncertain and disputed.  Borrowing from Germanic languages is shown by post-classical Latin acra (frequently from 11th cent. in British and continental sources; 9th cent. in a Belgian source as accrum) and Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French, French acre (12th cent.; now chiefly denoting either a measure of land in Normandy or the British measure); the standard modern spelling of the English word as acre rather than aker perhaps reflects the influence of French orthography.

“acre, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2021. Web. 14 November 2021.

As we see, similarly sounding words, with senses related and unrelated – a current of water, a piece of land, etc. – are expressed through a variety of similar spellings.

Let’s look at one example. Aker, in related and unrelated senses:

We find one of the oldest examples of ‘Aker’ in Sir Gawain, a poem written in the 14th century. The poem is known to us from a single manuscript, Cotton MS Nero A X/2.

Sone þay calle of a quest in aker syde,/ Þe hunt re-hayted þe hounde3, þat hit fyrst mynged, / Wylde worde3 hym warp wyth a wrast noyce;/ Þe hownde3 þat hit herde, hastid þider swyþe, & fellen as fast to þe fuyt, fourty at ones;

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Middle English) Anonymous, ~1350 – 1400, edited by Richard Morris, Second edition, 1869

Access the quotation in the context of the full text here.

Richard Morris, one of the early scholars of the poem, writes in the Preface to the edition of Sir Gawain, published in 1869:

In re-editing the present romance-poem I have been saved all labour of transcription by using the very accurate text contained in Sir F. Madden’s “Syr Gawayne.”

I have not only read his copy with the manuscript, but also the proof-sheets as they came to hand, hoping by this means to give the reader a text free from any errors of transcription.

The present edition differs from that of the earlier one in having the contractions of the manuscript expanded and side-notes added to the text to enable the reader to follow with some degree of ease the author’s pleasant narrative of Sir Gawayne’s adventures.

PREFACE to the first edition, 1864, Richard Morris

J. R. R. Tolkien who edited the original about 100 years later opted for a slightly different transcription:

SONE þay calle of a quest in a ker syde,/ Þe hunt rehayted þe houndez þat hit fyrst mynged,/ Wylde wordez hym warp wyth a wrast noyce;/ Þe howndez þat hit herde hastid þider swyþe,/ And fellen as fast to þe fuyt, fourty at ones;

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Middle English) Anonymous, ~1350 – 1400, edited by J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon, 1967

Here is a fragment of the page with the text in the original manuscript, the Cotton MS Nero A X/2, at the British Library (no other manuscripts with the poem are known to scholars):

page 110-114, Cotton Nero Manuscript

The Cotton Nero A.x project, the result of an international collaboration between Canadian scholars and the British Library, provides further insight:

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, A Digital Facsimile, Publications of the Cotton Nero A.x. Project 3. June 2018

Sone þay calle of a quest in a ker syde.
Þe hunt rehayted þe houndeȝ þat hit fyrst mynged, wylde wordeȝ hym warp wyth a wrast uoyce.
Þe howndeȝ þat hit herde hastid þider swyþe,

1425 and fellen as fast to þe fuyt, fourty at ones.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Transcription, A Critical Edition, Publications of the Cotton Nero A.x. Project

Among other objectives, the project aims to “to produce editions of each of the individual poems in which the digital facsimiles and the new transcriptions serve as a basis for a standard critical and reading text with glossary, full textual and explanatory notes, and other supports for readers.”

The authors of the project comment in the notes:

1421 a ker] aker MS, Ma, Mo

Page 86, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Transcription, A Critical Edition, Publications of the Cotton Nero A.x. Project

MS Manuscript, Ma Madden, Frederic, ed. Syr Gawayne: A Collection of Ancient Romance-poems. Bannatyne Club. London: Taylor, 1839., Mo Morris, Richard, ed. Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight: An Alliterative Romance- Poem. Early English Text Society OS 4. London: Trübner, 1964. Second ed. 1869.

It appears more recent scholars chose the ‘a ker’ reading, while earlier scholars preferred ‘aker’.

Dr. Murray McGillivray, who works on the project, explains:

Word division is uncertain in the Gawain manuscript in general (BL Cotton Nero A.x.), but two factors induced me (and most other scholars) to analyze the apparent word “aker” (acre? field?) here as “a ker” (a swamp, etc.): 1. The syntax would be at least unusual if the apparent MS reading were retained as “in aker syde” since an article (“a” or “the”) would be expected; also alliteration would be off, since “aker” would alliterate as a vowel. 2. The expression occurs with variation 10 lines later (SGGK 1431) as “In a knot bi a clyffe at þe kerre syde,” where word division and the correct reading are more obvious.

Dr. Murray McGillivray, email correspondence 18/11/2021

Here are three modern translations:

Soon some were on a scent by the side of a marsh;

When the hounds opened cry, the head of the hunt

Rallied them with rough words, raised a great noise.

The hounds that had heard it came hurrying straight

And followed along with their fellows, forty together.

Translated and modernised by Marie Borroff

Soon they called for a search by the marsh-side,

the huntsman urged on the first hounds up,

wild cries he uttered with wondrous noise.

The hounds that heard him hastened there swiftly,

and fell as fast to the trail, forty at once.

Translated and modernised by A. S. Kline

J.R.R. Tolkien chooses a different rendering still:

Soon these cried for a quest in a covert by a marsh;

the huntsman hailed the hound that first heeded the scent,

stirring words he spoke to him with a strindent voice.

The hounds then that heard it hastened thither swiftly,

and fell fast on the line, some forty at once.

Translated by J. R. R. Tolkien

Examples of usage in other senses:

The Bible translations refer to an aker of land:

And that first slaughter whiche Ionathan & his harnesse bearer made, was vpon a twentie men, within the compasse as it were about an halfe aker of land which two [oxen plowe.]

And that fyrst slaughter whiche Ionathas & his harnes berer made, was vpon a. rr. men, wt us the compasse as it were aboute an halfe aker of lande. And there was a feare in the hoost, in the felde, & among all people: in so moche that they that were gone out of the watch to rob, were afrayde also: & the earth trymbled, for the feare that was sent of God.

And Ionathas smote them downe before him, and his wapē bearer slewe behynde him, so that the first slaughter that Ionathas and his wapen bearer dyd, was vpō a twentye men, with in the length of halue an aker of londe, which a pare of oxen maye tyll in one daye.

And the first slaughter, with which Ionathas & his esquier made, was as it were of twentie men in the halfe part of an aker, which a yoke of oxen is wont to plough in a day.

Coverdale, Great Bible, Bishops, Douay-Rheims

Melville speaks of another kind of Aker entirely:

All the islanders are more or less in the habit of anointing themselves;the women preferring the “aker” or “papa,” and the men using the oil ofthe cocoa-nut. Mehevi was remarkably fond of mollifying his entire cuticlewith this ointment. Sometimes he might be seen with his whole body fairlyreeking with the perfumed oil of the nut, looking as if he had justemerged from a soap-boiler’s vat, or had undergone the process of dippingin a tallow-chandlery. To this cause, perhaps, united to their frequentbathing, and extreme cleanliness, is ascribable, in a great measure, themarvellous purity and smoothness of skin exhibited by the natives ingeneral.

Typee Melville, Herman 1846

You can find the quotation in the source text here.

(To be continued)