Assegai is more savage sounding

Sunday, December 22nd, 2019

One of the odder decisions Robert Graves made in translating ancient terms into modern English was his decision to call the German spear an assegai:

It has been difficult at times to find suitable renderings for military, legal and other technical terms. To give a single instance, there is the word “assegai”. Aircraftman T.E. Shaw (whom I take this opportunity of thanking for his careful reading of these proofs) questions my use of “assegai” as an equivalent of the German framea or pfreim. He suggests “javelin”. But I have not adopted the suggestion, as I have gratefully adopted others of his, because I need “javelin” for pilum, the regular missile weapon of the disciplined Roman infantryman; and “assegai” is more savage sounding. “Assegai” has had a three-hundred year currency in English and acquired new vigour in the nineteenth century because of the Zulu wars. The long-shafted iron-headed framea was used, according to Tacitus, both as a missile and as a stabbing weapon. So was the assegai of the Ama-Zulu warriors, with whom the Germans of Claudius’s day had culturally much in common. If Tacitus’s statements, first as to the handiness of the framea at close quarters, and then as to its unmanageability among trees, are to be reconciled, the Germans probably did what the Zulus did — they broke off the end of the framea‘s long shaft when hand-to-hand fighting started. But it seldom came to that, for the Germans always preferred strike-and-run tactics when engaged with the better-armed Roman infantryman.

When I rewatched Zulu Dawn a few years ago, I did a little digging and realized that assegai isn’t a Zulu word at all:

Assegai is a Berber word for spear, which somehow became the English word for any African spear.  Shaka’s innovative short-hafted spear with a sword-like blade, designed for close combat, was dubbed the iklwa — a grisly bit of onomatopoeia for the sound it made when pulled from a victim.


  1. Adar says:

    The development and use of the stabbing spear by the Zulu of course a totally [?] independent development.

  2. Graham says:

    Now that’s interesting.

    I didn’t know Graves had done that. Not convinced it was a good choice, but then the Zulus and their assegais probably loomed larger in cultural memory in Britain and when he wrote than they do now, so the word choice would have conveyed an idea of the German weapon’s use. I have no idea if it does so accurately. These days, I’d also cringe at the sloppy and ethnographically confusing choice.

    More importantly, I since childhood thought the word assegai had entered English from Zulu, was a Zulu word, and referred only to the Zulu spear.

    Go figure. I had no idea the English gave it that name based on a word they already had, let alone a Berber origin word. Now I envision some hapless English soldier in the Tangier garrison under Charles II, speared in the gut and with some bookish comrade looking on studiously and calling the weapon an assegai.

  3. Alrenous says:

    I would call the framea a ‘framea’ and the pilum a ‘pilum’, but I’m a weirdo so maybe that’s just me.

  4. Kirk says:

    The question is, is the spear-type weapon a projectile or is it a pole-arm?

    I’d submit that the iklwa has rather more in common with something like a halberd than it does the Roman pilum. It isn’t meant to leave the hands of the combatant wielding it, the combatant doesn’t have a brace of them to “use up” in combat, and he’s pretty much screwed if he does lose it in an opponent’s body.

    The Romans had things like the plumbata, which was basically a lawn dart carried on the inner side of their shields, and the afore-mentioned pilum. These were, it may be noted, more munition than hand-weapon, which was something their opponents could ill-afford. The limited metals available to the Germans, for example, militated against expendables like the Romans carried. This was why they had things like the framea, which were iklwa equivalents. Horses for courses…

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