World Wide Words logo

Welkin

We don’t use this much nowadays — dictionaries usually tag it as archaic or literary — except in the set phrase make the welkin ring, meaning to make a very loud sound.

What supposedly rings in this situation is the vault of heaven, the bowl of the sky, the firmament. In older cosmology this was thought to be one of a set of real crystal spheres that enclosed the Earth, to which the planets and stars were attached, so it would have been capable of ringing like a bell if you made enough noise.

The word comes from the Old English wolcen, a cloud, related to the Dutch wolk and German Wolke. Very early on, for example in the epic poem Beowulf of about the eighth century AD, the phrase under wolcen meant under the sky or under heaven (the bard used the plural, wolcnum, but it’s the same word). Ever since, it has had a strong literary or poetic connection.

It appears often in Shakespeare and also in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: “This day in mirth and revel to dispend, / Till on the welkin shone the starres bright”. In 1739, a book with the title Hymns and Sacred Poems introduced one for Christmas written by Charles Wesley that began: “Hark! how all the welkin rings, / Glory to the King of kings”. If that seems a little familiar, it is because 15 years later it reappeared as “Hark! the herald-angels sing / Glory to the new born king”.

Page created 4 Nov. 2000

Support World Wide Words.

Donate by selecting your currency and clicking the button.


Buy anything from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you.

Buy from Amazon UK Buy from Amazon USA

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved. See the copyright page for notes about linking to and reusing this page. For help in viewing the site, see the technical FAQ. Your comments, corrections and suggestions are always welcome.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-wel1.htm
Last modified: 4 November 2000.