Wordhord Wednesday #175: the ins and outs of on-gang

On-gang has some weirdly varied definitions that I’m going to explore in today’s post. These definitions (according to the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary) are:

  • an entrance
  • an attack, going with violence
  • worship

The prefix on- can mean a number of things: in, upon, over, at, within, among, during, in the course of, a- (as in “the game is a-foot”), by, with, consisting of, in respect to, in the matter of, on to, into, against, in accordance with… you get the idea. This variety is not surprising, given that the Oxford English Dictionary entry for the preposition “on” lists a whopping 29 different definitions!

I’ve written about gang in the past (see Wordhord Wednesday #140 on forþ-gang). Gang is “going”. And when you think of all the ways we use “going” in modern English… well, it’s actually surprising that on-gang doesn’t have even more different definitions.

But moving on (or gang on…)

It’s pretty easy to see how a word that literally means something like “in-going” would translate to “entrance”. It’s used as a translation for Latin ingressus (entry, going in) in the Psalms. Psalm 67 of the Arundel Psalter says:

Gesawon ingangas þine god ongange godes mines ciningas mines se is on halgum.

as a translation of the Latin:

Uiderunt ingressus tuos deus ingressus dei mei regis mei qui est in sancto.

A word for word translation of the OE is something like: “They saw your in-goings, God, the in-goings of my God, my King, who is in a holy place.” This is Psalm 67:25, which the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible has as: “They have seen thy goings, O God, the goings of my God: of my king who is in his sanctuary.” “Thy goings”, according to Douay-Rheims, refers to the ways by which God took possession of the promised land in favour of the people of Israel. This, in turn, prefigures the ways by which God takes possession of the whole world in favour of his son Jesus. Ingressus appears twice in the Latin, and in OE is translated using ingangas and ongange, two different spellings for a word meaning entrance. 

Another use of on-gang is in the Gospel of Mark in the Rushworth Gospels. This is the story in chapter 5 of Mark, in which Jesus casts out a legion of evil spirits who then inhabit the bodies of swine. The swine subsequently run off the side of a cliff and drown in the sea.

And at once the Saviour gave them leave. And the unclean spirits, going out, entered into the swine, and with a great rush or going (micle ræse ł ongonge), the multitude was driven into the sea, about two thousand, and were drowned in the sea.

This is where the definition of “attack” or “going with violence” comes from, although the swine aren’t really attacking and I don’t think the word on-gang necessarily has the meaning “with violence”. They are going into the sea — so this is just another case of an in-going.

The final definition is the most puzzling: worship. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People records the inscription on the grave of St Augustine, which reads (in translation):

Here lies lord Augustine, first archbishop of Canterbury, who was formerly sent here by the blessed Gregory, bishop of Rome, and was sustained by God with the working of miracles. He led King Æthelberht and his people from deofulgilda ongonge to faith in Christ and ended the days of his service in peace; he died on the 26th day of May during the reign of that same king.

Dēofol-gyld is idolatry, devil-worship, pagan religion, or it can refer more concretely to an idol or statue of a pagan god. So Augustine led people away from the in-going of idolatry? I see why Bosworth-Toller lists “worship” as an alternative definition, since then you could have something like “the worship of idols”. Leading people from a “going-into of idolatrous practices” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense grammatically. However, I think the definition “undertaking” makes more sense than “worship”. Augustine led them away from their undertaking of idolatrous practices and devil-worship.

Words like on-gang — vague compounds of words that were vague to begin with — can be tricky to define. I think it’s best to start with the most literal translation possible (e.g. “in-going”) and go from there. It’s easier to see the connection of in-going with undertaking (and thus of undertaking with entrance) than in-going with worship.

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