Ancrene Wisse: the earliest extant use of the word “private” in written English

Why do we talk about privacy using the word “privacy”?

English is the lingua franca of academic knowledge. We use it as a tool to communicate with each other across linguistic borders. So one of the answers to this question is that we use the word “privacy” as a way to explain to each other—in an international context—not only historical events described in English that use this English word, but also events that use other vocabulary and other languages, and that we (as researchers) recognize as being related to what in English we call privacy.

But listening to the History of English Podcast, I recently caught myself pondering a second way of thinking about this question: why this particular word? Or to put it in another way, how and when did the word “privacy” (and related words, like “private”) appear in the English lexicon?

A 13th-century text called Ancrene Wisse can provide some clues to answer this question.

Folio 16 of Ancrene Wisse, Corpus MS 402

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 402: Ancrene Wisse. The marginal note on the left side of folio 16 shows a drawing in the shape of a pointing finger, indicating something of interest in the text.

Ancrene Wisse means roughly Anchoresses’ Guide. It is an early Middle English text containing instructions for women who lived as recluses and were known as anchoresses. The first version of this guide was originally written for three laywomen, sisters of noble birth, as spiritual and practical advice for their chosen life of seclusion. The text is believed to have been produced sometime in the early 1200s. The author of the Ancrene Wisse is not known. Attempts at identifying the author have been numerous but inconclusive, and recent scholarship is moving away from the fixation with trying to identify one single author. Some scholars (Savage 2010; Hasenfratz 2000; Millett et al. 1996) argue that the content of the nine manuscripts in English that survive today can be better understood as the collaborative product of many hands and minds, since many people copied, questioned, and improved on the text, including anchoresses themselves.

The first draft of the Ancrene Wisse, which does not survive, does seem to have been written down by one person who had these particular three sisters in mind. This person was likely an educated priest who lived in the West Midlands in England. He had a habit of glossing difficult words within the text itself: when he used an obscure word, he paired it with a more common word that had a similar meaning. He did that for words that he believed were difficult for his readers to understand, as was the case for the many words borrowed from French into English in the centuries after the Norman conquest of 1066 (Melvis 2019). From the way borrowed words appear in glossed pairs in the Ancrene Wisse, it is likely that the writer was trying to clarify their meaning for readers who might not have had extensive knowledge of the French language.

It is in one of these glossed pairs in the Ancrene Wisse that we find the earliest extant use of the word “private” in English. It appears in the following passage:

Hercnith nu, leove sustren, hu hit is uvel to uppin, ant hu god thing hit is to heolen god-dede, ant fleo bi niht as niht-fuhel, ant gederin bi theostre – thet is, i privite, ant dearnliche – sawle fode.

The modern English translation provided in Hasenfratz reads as follows:

Hear now, dear sisters, how it is evil to mention, and how good a thing it is to cover up a good deed, and fly by night as a night bird does and gather by darkness – that is, in privacy and secretly – the soul’s food.

In the passage above, where we see “in privite, ant dearnliche,” the writer implies that the word “privite” (a borrowing from French) and the word “dearnliche” (which had its origins in Old English) had similar meanings. Clever! Paring a newly borrowed word with an Old English one seems to me like an intuitive, swift, and effective way to explain the meaning of the new one (Bergen 2012).

The Middle English Dictionary indicates that the word “dearnliche” comes from the Old English adjective form dē̆rne:

dē̆rnelī(che adv. Also dernlī(che, dern(e)like & dærnelike (Orm.), dearnliche & deorneliche, durneliche. Comp. derneluker.

It gives it the following definitions:

in privacy or seclusion; unnoticed, undetected; helen ~, hiden ~, to conceal (sth.); (b) privately, confidentially; (c) stealthily, slyly; (d) without display; inwardly, deeply.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “dernly” as “secretly” and gives the following examples of usage:

A1200 Moral Ode 77 in Trin. Coll. Hom. 222
Ne bie hit no swo derne idon.

c1400 (▸?c1380) Cleanness l. 697
I compast hem a kynde crafte & kende hit hem derne.

c1440 Bone Flor. 1958
They..went forthe, so seyth the boke, Prevely and derne.

a1627 A. Craig Pilgrime & Heremite (1631) sig. A1
I drew me darne to the doore, some din to heare.

This Old English word dē̆rne eventually became obsolete; today it is no longer part of the English lexicon. Cognates of “pritive” seem to have displaced representations of the sense that used to be attributed to dē̆rne.

The French-derived “privite” is related to other Latin words, such as “privus,” which means “one’s own, individual.” This word has even earlier roots, coming to us all the way back from Proto-Into-European via Proto-Italic.

Proto-Italic *prei-wo- [meaning] “separate, individual,” from [Proto-Indo-European] *prai-, *prei- “in front of, before,” from root *per- (1) “forward.”

Etymonline explains that this sense was acquired due to the semantic shift from something that was “in front of” to something “being separate.”

In hindsight, it makes intuitive sense to me that the earliest source for words like “privacy,” “private,” and their other cognates appear in a book of advice about how to live a life of seclusion. It could have been different, certainly, but it is indeed a fitting topic. What I do find somewhat surprising and quite interesting is that the passage where “privite” appears in the Ancrene Wisse deals with works of charity. More specifically, with the biblical mandate that one should do good deeds without calling attention to them, a topic that we are currently pursuing in the Versailles case team at the Centre for Privacy Studies.

Many more glossed pairs occur in the Ancrene Wisse, which is the earliest extant written source for many words borrowed from French that would become staples of the English language. If you want to have a look at it, you can visit the open access critical edition by Robert Hasenfratz at



Bergen, Benjamin K. 2012. Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning. Basic Books.

Hasenfratz, Robert. 2000. Ancrene Wisse. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications.

Mevis, Alice. 2019. ‘The French Lexical Influence on the Development of the English Language: An Analysis of French Loanwords in Three Middle English Religious Texts (1200-1400)’. Ghent, Belgium: Ghent University.

Millett, Bella, Senior Lecturer in Department of English Bella Millett, George Jack, and Yoko Wada. 1996. Ancrene Wisse, the Katherine Group, and the Wooing Group. Boydell & Brewer.

Savage, Anne. 2010. ‘The Communal Authorship of Ancrene Wisse’. In A Companion to Ancrene Wisse, edited by Yoko Wada. Boydell & Brewer Ltd.