- To purify or become rotten
- To become muddled
‘Addle’ first appears as a verb in old English and derives from the old English word adela – meaning ‘urine’. It also seems to have been used to refer to any other unpleasant wet substance. There are other similar words in Northern European languages – including, for example, adel in Old Swedish (meaning urine) or aal in Dutch, meaning ‘puddle’.
‘Addle’ then becomes used as an adjective – specifically in relation to eggs. In the 13th century, rotten eggs became known as ‘Addle eggs’ – literally meaning ‘urine eggs’. Indeed, this phrase never fully died out and is apparently still in use in some places. This construct is not unusual and is thought to have derived from the similar Latin use of ovum urinum (urine eggs). The Latin speakers heard the Greeks using it and borrowed it – but, as it turns out, they didn’t fully understand what the Greeks were saying. The Greek use of the construct was, in fact, ourion oon, which translates as something like a ‘farty’ egg.
The wide-spread use of the phrase ‘Addle Eggs’ from the 13th century onward saw the meaning of the word change in the public mind away from only referring to ‘urine’ and towards a general meaning of purification. Eventually, it came to generally refer to ‘turn’ or to ‘muddle’ something – which is where we get our 21st century understanding of ‘addle’ from. ‘Addle’ today means to be muddled.
Why this word?
The word ‘Addle’ shows very clearly how a word can evolve over a number of centuries to take on new meanings, yet the original meaning is still understood. I will, however, never be able to hear the phrase ‘my mind is addled’ again without cracking a smile.
How to use the word addle in a sentence?
The most common use is still ‘My mind is addled’ – however, it is conceivable that one could begin to refer again to rotten eggs as ‘Addle eggs’. Used in the right context, the egg will set the context and you will not have to explain what you mean. As to going right back to the original meaning – could you conceivably ‘go for an addle’? Or could you wake up to find that your dog has ‘addled’ all over the kitchen floor? I’m not sure – I can’t decide. My mind is, indeed, addled.