The Salamander Foundation
Story by Janet Rowe
THE ANGLO-SAXONS were a down-to-earth people.
Take, for example, the Old English word for salamander—wæternædre—literally, “water snake.”
In Latin, the word salamandra refers to a mythical creature that can live in fire, says Professor Haruko Momma, Chief Editor of the Dictionary of Old English and Angus Cameron Professor of Old English. “Of course, the Anglo-Saxons knew about the myth. But when they rendered this Latin word into their own tongue, they chose a word that reflected their lived experience, based on their observation of the animal in the natural world.”
This is just one of many words that offer insight into the Anglo-Saxons’ understanding of their environment. And that’s why the Dictionary of Old English (DOE) is not just an exercise in lexicography, but a study of the cultural evolution of a people.
“Studying Old English offers deeper insight into so many things—for example the history of law, or the way the human body was understood 1,000 years ago,” says Momma. “It also lets us trace the evolution of ideas and beliefs, such as fate, heroism, humanity and cosmology.”
The DOE, founded in 1970 at the University of Toronto, aims to map all of the roughly 33,000 known words from the earliest form of the language (600-1150 CE), transforming our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon world. Today, the editors are getting ready to release the letter ‘I’, and working on the next volume, covering LA through LE. (There is no J or K in the Old English alphabet.)
The DOE is heavily dependent on philanthropic support. One of its most steadfast backers has been the Salamander Foundation, recently making a $1.5-million donation, among the most generous in the dictionary’s history.
“The Salamander Foundation’s support has already helped us move up the publication of the letter ‘I’ by several months,” says Momma. “This latest gift has greatly energized everyone involved with the DOE. We are uncovering new words and expressions every day. Now we can make even more ground-breaking discoveries with the Foundation’s magnificent gift.”
The Salamander Foundation is one of the two organizations that evolved from the Richard and Jean Ivey Fund, a charitable foundation administered for many years by the Iveys’ daughter, Lorraine Shuttleworth, who passed away in March 2018 at the age of 98. She was a passionate philanthropist in her hometown of London, Ontario, supporting health, culture and sustainability initiatives. Lorraine’s daughter Nan Shuttleworth—who was president of the Salamander Foundation until it wound up in 2018—embodies her mother’s passion and generosity. Nan, who has been a keen supporter of the DOE for many years, received an Arbor Award in 2013 for her work helping secure grants for the project.
“Nan has greatly inspired our team, and we are profoundly grateful,” says Momma. “Thanks to Nan, we are one giant step closer to completing the DOE, and to realizing our ultimate goal of establishing a global institute for the study of Old English in Canada.”
S is for Steadfast: Dean David Cameron and philanthropist Nan Shuttleworth, a longtime supporter of the DOE.