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Notes on “Hele”
by Bro. Yoshio Washizu
Much has been written on that small word that is used in combination with the words "conceal" and "reveal." Disputes still arise from time to time among some brethren about the word, especially its pronunciation. Some say it should be pronounced "heel" to rhyme with "meal," while others say it should be pronounced "hail" to rhyme with "mail." Then there is an opinion that whatever we say, it is still a matter of speculation. After all, none of us lived in the days when it was used in its original sense. Another opinion is that we have a pretty good idea as to what English words sounded like then. The purpose here is to provide brief notes on that small but controversial word.
The word in question is often spelled "hele."1 It originates from an old English root "helan." Somner’s Saxon-Latin-English Dictionary (1659) has "helan=celare, tegere-to hide, to cover, to heale, and hence in many places a coverlet is called 'a hylling.'" Lye’s Saxon Dictionary (1772) defines "helan" as "to hele, hyll, celare, unde nostra hylling."2 Given as the principal meaning of "helan" in Lye’s dictionary, "hele" must have been in use in the latter half of the 18th century.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the most comprehensive English-language dictionary available today providing the history of each word, changes in its spelling and meaning, and quotations from the earliest known use of the word to the latest, defines "hele" as "to hide, conceal; to keep secret." The date of its earliest recorded use in this sense is around 825. Then the word acquired another meaning, i.e., "to cover (roots, seeds, etc.) with earth; to cover with slates or tiles." Its earliest use in this sense is around 1200. The second meaning has survived to this (the 20th) century in some parts of Great Britain. At one point there were some 25 guilds in Dublin, Ireland. One of them was made up of carpenters, millers, masons and heliers.3 "Helier" derives from "hele." Today heliers or tylers are represented by slaters. By the way, "hele" and "hell" have the same root.
As far as masonic literature is concerned, "hele" is found in the Cooke MS. (c. 1400-1410) for the first time: "... he can hele the councelle [=counsel] of his felows in logge [=lodge] and in chambere...."4
The combined use of the words, "hele," "conceal" and "reveal," first appeared in Samuel Prichard’s Masonry Dissected (1730): "I will Hail and Conceal, and never Reveal...." Its variations are found in other early masonic documents: "... to heill and conceall ..." (The Edinburgh Register House MS., 1696); "... Hear & Conceal ..." (The Chetwode Crawley MS., c. 1700); "... heal and Conceal or Conceal and keep secrett ..." (The Sloane MS., c. 1700); "... to hear & Conseal ..." (The Kevan MS., c.1714-1720); "... Hear and Conceal..." (The Grand Mystery of Free-Masons Discover'd, 1724); "... hide & conceal ..." (Institution of Free Masons, c. 1725); "... heal & conceal..." (The Wilkinson MS., 1727); "... always hail, conceal, and never will reveal ..." (Three Distinct Knocks, 1760); and "... always hale, conceal, and never reveal ..." (Jachin and Boaz, 1762).5
How should "hele" be pronounced? First it must be pointed out that the English language has undergone great changes in the past. The long vowels and some short ones moved greatly from the 15th to the 17th centuries, the consonant changes were less significant, though. The changes between Chaucer’s time (when Middle English was used) and that of Shakespeare (Early Modern English) are commonly referred to as the "great vowel shift."6 For instance, the vowel of the word "meat" shifted from "e" (like "e" in "met") in Old English to "e:" (long "e") in Middle English and "i:" in Modern English and that of the word "name" changed from "a" in Old English to "a:" (long "a") in Middle English, "e:" in Early Modern English and "ei" in Modern English.7 "Hele" is such an old word that its pronunciation may have changed over the years.
English words were often spelled phonetically in olden days. We find in the OED many different forms of spelling of the word under discussion: "Hele the cors of this dede man in so me prive place of thin house" (Gesta Roman xxxiii. 129, Harl. MS., c. 1440); "They made them to swere they schulde be lele, And syr Emers counsell heyle" (Bone Flor. 989, c. 1440); "Heill nor conceill, reset nane of thay lownis" (Satir. Poems Reform xviii. 35, 1570); "Although I would heal it neer sae well, Our God above does see" (Bold Burnet’s Dau. ix. in Child Ballads ii. lii. 453/2, 16—).
Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary, which was compiled some 100 years ago to list all the dialect words in use or known to have been used, also includes, under the word "heal" meaning "to hide, conceal, keep secret," many variations of spelling: "hael" in Caithness; "ail," West Som.; "hail," Devon and Cornwall; "hale," Herts, Norfolk, Hants, W. Som., Devon and Cornwall; "heel," Devon, Hants, Somerset and Cornwall, among others; and "hele," Hants, W. Som., Devon, Cornwall and 10 other localities. In 25 cases it is written "heeall," "heel," "hele" or "eel"; in 11, "hael," "hail," "ail," or "hale"; in W. Yorks, "heald"; in West Country, "heill"; in five counties, "hel"; in seven, "hell"; in Wilts, "hield" and "yeeld"; and in Cheshire, "yeal."8
As for pronunciation, the OED only gives "hi:l" (to rhyme with "meal") for the word. It seems, however, that the word was pronounced both "heel" and "hail" a couple of hundred years ago when Freemasonry was at a growth stage, judging from the manner in which it was spelled then. In addition, it seems that its pronunciation varied in different localities. According to Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary, out of the seven localities, namely, Caithness, Herts, Norfolk, Devon, Cornwall, Hants and W. Somerset, to which Wright attributes the "hail" sound, the "heel" sound was also used in the last four. This means that people used only the "hail" sound in the three localities.9
In the early 19th century, shortly before the Union of the two Grand Lodges in England, the Lodge of Reconciliation was formed to come up with a uniform system of working. At the Grand Assembly held for the Union on December 27, 1813, the members of this lodge, having decided on the modes of recognition and other matters, reported the results. The forms settled and agreed on by the lodge were pronounced pure and correct. "This being declared, the same was recognised as the forms to be alone observed and practised in the United Grand Lodge, and all the Lodges dependant thereon, until time shall be no more."10 Thereafter, the lodge gave a series of demonstrations in London with brethren attending from various parts of the country. Some of its members demonstrated the proposed ritual in some other areas as well. In 1816 the final approval of the Reconciliation working was made by the Grand Lodge subject to some minor amendments to the third degree. It has not been adopted by all the lodges under the English Constitution, however. The Lodge of Reconciliation was dissolved in 1816.
No official record was made of the new working. It was frowned upon to print the ritual in those days. One of the members of the Lodge of Reconciliation was reprimanded for having "offended against a known masonic Rule, in printing certain letters, and marks, tending to convey information on the subject of Masonic Instruction."11 But it was the printing of the working that was prohibited. Some manuscript notes made then have survived.12 The Shadbolt MS. and the Williams-Arden MS. are such notes which are attributed to some prominent members of the Lodge of Reconciliation. They contain notes on the new ritual. Bro. Colin Dyer says, "... in all mentions in these two manuscripts there is no doubt that the word is 'hail,' at least as far as pronunciation goes, and if these papers represent what was the thinking in the Lodge of Reconciliation, and what was in their work that was approved by Grand Lodge in 1816, then that was the word approved."13
Among those brethren who came to the demonstrations of the Reconciliation working was one Bro. Millward. He attended on five occasions. Initiated at the age of 21 in 1811, he remained a freemason until his death at the age of 87. He was a very influential mason and was highly regarded in his region. He was one of the founders of the Phoenix Lodge of St. Ann, Derbyshire, and became its first Master. Most lodges in Derbyshire use the pronunciation "heel," whereas the Phoenix Lodge of St. Ann is one of the rare early lodges in the region to use "hail."14
George Claret refers to the word in question in his Masonic Gleanings (1844):
Not long after the Union, and when the members of the United Fraternity were somewhat reconciled, and the more turbulent spirits a little subdued, and brought to reflection, the Grand Master at a Quarterly Communication of the Grand Lodge, made the following statement, that he would on that occasion reobligate the Masters and Wardens, with the "new obligation" and that the Masters were to do the same to all members of their respective lodges. For which purpose, the Grand Master retired to one of the large rooms of the Tavern, and we were conducted to him in parties of about eight, when there, he requested us to kneel around the Pedestal, and place one hand on the Sacred Volume, and in that position we were obligated, it was the E.A. as now used. When he came to the word "Hele" he made a pause, and stated that it must be used in future, it is (he remarked) an old Saxon term, and signifies (sic) to Hide or Cover. And besides this authority, I cannot understand how either of the terms viz. "Hail" or "Hale" can apply to the meaning those words are intended to convey.15
From the above statement it seems the Grand Master directed them to say "hail."
Anyhow, some brethren were still unsure of the use of the word in the last century. The February 23, 1861 issue of the Freemasons' Magazine and Masonic Mirror included a query from a brother: "Which is the proper use of the word, Hele, or Hail? It is as frequently used the one way as the other." The following answer was provided in the same issue: "'To hele' is an Anglo-Saxon verb, signifying 'to hide.' It is properly pronounced like heel, the anterior portion of the human foot. In Doomsday-book there is mention of a village called Hele, in the West of England, and its retiring and hidden scenery shows that those who originally gave it the name derived their nomenclature from its position."16
So we have conflicting evidence as to the pronunciation of the word. Obviously our masonic ancestors used both pronunciations.17 And both pronunciations are in use in English lodges today.
Soon after the Union, lodges of instruction began to be formed, the most famous being the Stability Lodge of Instruction and the Emulation Lodge of Improvement. The Stability Lodge of Instruction was founded in 1817 and its early leaders were directly concerned with the Lodge of Reconciliation. Three brethren who had belonged to the Lodge of Reconciliation were among the founders of the Stability Lodge of Instruction.18 Today the number of lodges using the Stability Ritual is much smaller than that of those using the Emulation Ritual. But it is still one of the oldest and most distinguished lodges of instruction. The Emulation Lodge of Improvement, on the other hand, was founded in 1823 and was shortly after joined by many eminent masons who had been members of the Lodge of Reconciliation or had attended its meetings, e.g., Bro. Edwards Harper, Grand Secretary, who had acted as Secretary to the Lodge of Reconciliation, and Bro. Peter Gilkes who had attained the highest eminence as a masonic instructor in the first half of the 19th century.19 It is assumed that the procedures approved by the Grand Lodge in 1816 have been handed down by these lodges of instruction, the purity of their teachings was at times contested, though. At the anniversary meeting of the Emulation Lodge of Improvement held in January 1858, the chairman, in proposing the toast to "The Sister Lodge of Instruction the Stability" expressed a hope that the differences of working between the two lodges might soon be reconciled. Bro. Henry Muggeridge of the Stability Lodge of Instruction, in reply to the compliment, said that although there was no fundamental differences in the two systems, there was yet sufficient variation to cause confusion and that he was glad to find that there was a prospect of their being assimilated.20
The Stability Lodge of Instruction is not specific as to the pronunciation of "hele," leaving the matter to the brethren.21 So it can be pronounced either "heel" or "hail" in that working. On the other hand, the word is pronounced "hail" in the Emulation Ritual, the most widely used ritual under the English Constitution today. It says that the original meaning, spelling and pronunciation of the word in question being uncertain, the Emulation Lodge of Improvement maintains what it believes to be the original pronunciation. The word is shown as "h (pronounced hail)" in its ritual book.22
While "hail" has been sanctioned in many lodges, "heel" is also used widely in England. Some scholars of this (the 20th) century seem to be in favor of the latter pronunciation. An eminent authority on philology, not himself a freemason, wrote to Bro. Arthur Betts who was working on a paper on "hele" some 80 years ago: "As to hele, from O.E., helian, to conceal, hide, the modern pronunciation would be like our modern 'heal' and the Oxford [English] Dictionary means ... something of the same sound. You certainly would not get 'hail' in modern English from this, unless perchance it came from some Scottish source."23
Another thing. Rhymes were often employed in the early days. For instance, in Chaucer’s works we find "hele" used with some other words that rhyme with it:
A felowe that can wel concele,
And Kepe thy counsel and wel hele (Romaunt of the Rose, c. 1360s).
But that tale is nat worth a rake-stele [= a rake handle],
Pardee we wommen conne no thing hele (Wife of Bath’s Tale, 1380).
We also find passages that rhyme in early masonic catechisms. Here is an example excerpted from Prichard’s Masonry Dissected (1730):
Q.What do you come here to do?
A.Not to do my own proper Will,
But to subdue my Passion still;
The Rules of Masonry in hand to take,
And daily Progress therein make.24
It seems that originally the three words, "hele," "conceal" and "reveal," used in our ritual were likewise meant to rhyme. "A practical purpose was intended-that of making a special mark on the hearer’s mind, and fixing the three words in his memory," says Bro. Bernard E. Jones. If the original intent is to be maintained, therefore, they should be pronounced to rhyme, whether with "heel" or "hail." "But," he continues, "if they are to be intelligible, then the old pronunciation ['hail'] is quite out of the question. 'Hale, consale and never revale' would either be meaningless, or would invite a smile at a point in the ceremony where least desired."25 Bro. E. H. Cartwright is of the opinion that it should be pronounced "heel" and that if a Master likes to affect the archaic form of the word, "he should at least be consistent and say, 'hale, consale and never revale,' thus preserving the jingle that with little doubt had its attraction for our predecessors of two hundred years ago."26 Bro. Harry Carr is also inclined to support the pronunciation "heel" given in the OED. He says, "We use an archaic word, out of sentiment perhaps, but I see no reason for maintaining the archaic (or doubtful) pronunciation, when all the rest of our ritual is in modern usage."27 To sum up, the word "hele" may be sounded "heel" or "hail." But if we are to have the three words, "hele," "conceal" and "reveal," rhyme in our present-day working, it should be pronounced "heel."
1. Its variant spelling often used is "hail." In some working, "heal" is also used (William Harvey, The Complete Manual of Freemasonry, Glasgow, Toye, Kenning & Spencer Ltd., 1980, p. 12).^
2. Arthur Betts, Hele or Hail? (London: privately printed, 1917), pp. 3-4.^
3. John H. Lepper & Philip Crossle, History of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Ireland vol. 1 (Dublin: Lodge of Research, CC, 1925), p. 25.^
4. Douglas Knoop, G. P. Jones & Douglas Hamer, The Two Earliest Masonic MSS. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1938), p. 121.^
5. Douglas Knoop, G. P. Jones & Douglas Hamer, The Early Masonic Catechisms (London: Quatuor Coronati Lodge, 1975), pp. 31, 37, 42, 47, 77, 83 & 125; A. C. F. Jackson, English Masonic Exposures 1760-1769 (London: Lewis Masonic, 1986), pp. 69 & 132.^
6. C. L. Wrenn, The English Language (originally published by Methuen & Co., London in 1949; reprinted by Kenkyusha Ltd., Tokyo in 1964), pp. 80-81 (in reprint).^
7. Ibid., p. 82. Based on "an approximate summary in tabular form" by Prof. C. L. Wrenn and Prof. Daniel Jones.^
8. Betts, op. cit. (Note 2), p. 5.^
9. Ibid., p. 5.^
10. William J. Hughan, Memorials of the Masonic Union of A.D. 1813, revised and augmented by John T. Thorp (Leicester: Johnson, Wykes & Paine, 1913), pp. 39-40.^
11. W. Wonnacott, "The Lodge of Reconciliation (1813-1816)," Ars Quatuor Coronatorum vol. 23 for 1910, pp. 243-244.^
12. Colin Dyer, "The William-Arden Manuscript," Ars Quatuor Coronatorum vol. 87 for 1974, p. 168.^
13. Colin Dyer, "William Shadbolt," Ars Quatuor Coronatorum vol. 87 for 1974, p. 194.^
14. John Wilson, "To Emulate or Not to Emulate," Ars Quatuor Coronatorum vol. 101 for 1988, pp. 244-245 & 247.^
15. Ibid., pp. 246-247. While the incident is said to have taken place at a Quarterly Communication of the Grand Lodge, there is no reference to it in the Grand Lodge minutes, according to Bro. Dyer (AQC vol. 87, p. 157).^
16. Freemasons' Magazine and Masonic Mirror, February 23, 1861, p. 145.^
17. The two variant pronunciations are usually mentioned. However, various factors, especially the language’s regional variety, considered, there might have been more variations than those two at some point, at least in some localities.^
18. F. W. Golby, A Century of Masonic Working - A History of the Stability Lodge of Instruction (Bath: The Herald Press, 1921), p. 17.^
19. Henry Sadler, Illustrated History of Emulation Lodge of Improvement, No. 256 (London: Spencer & Co., 1904), p. 106.^
20. Golby, op. cit. (Note 18), p. 88.^
21. For this information I am indebted to W Bro. John Hamill, PM of Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076, England.^
22. "Notes on Ritual and Procedure," Emulation Ritual (London: Lewis Masonic, 1986), p. 23.^
23. Betts, op. cit. (Note 2), p. 7.^
24. Knoop, Jones & Hammer, op. cit. (Note 5), p. 160.^
25. Bernard E. Jones, Freemasons' Guide and Compendium (London: Harrap, 1956), p. 288. By the way, some say that as language in England was part Norman French and part Anglo-Saxon in the 12th and 13th centuries, "early ritual writers, desiring to make sure that no misunderstanding was possible, often expressed ideas in word pairs, one word from each language. Hence such phrases as 'hele and conceal,' 'parts and points,' 'Free will and accord,' etc." ("Some Curious Masonic Words," The Short Talk Bulletin for August 1953, pp. 7-8). But was that the real reason for the use of word pairs in the masonic ritual?
First, it should be noted that not all word pairs found in our ritual are formed with one word from Norman French and the other from Anglo-Saxon.
Second, although some words and phrases used in the ritual can be traced back to the period of Middle English (from about 1100 to about 1450) or even Old English (before about 1100), the masonic ritual is not that old. Freemasonry is believed to have evolved in the late 16th and 17th centuries (See, e.g., John Hamill, The Craft, Wellingborough, Aquarian Press, 1986, p. 20, or its revised edition, The History of English Freemasonry, London, Lewis Masonic, 1994, p. 24; A. Geoffrey Markham, "Some Problems of English Masonic History," AQC vol. 110, p. 1, or its extracted version, "Masonic History—What is Needed," The Short Talk Bulletin for July 1999, pp. 3-4).
The first recorded non-operative who was present at a lodge meeting was John Boswell, the Laird of Auchinleck. His name and mark are found at the bottom of the minutes of the Lodge of Edinburgh dated June 8, 1600. It is not clear, however, in what capacity he was in attendance. It was not an ordinary masonic meeting but a trial of its Warden "Jhone Broune." Some believe he was there as a member (or an honorary member) of the lodge and that this is the first evidence of a non-operative being a member of a masonic lodge, while others say he could have been there only as counsel for prosecution or defense or for some other reason. Anyway this is the only circumstance under which John Boswell’s connection with the masonic Craft can be traced (David Murray Lyon, History of The Lodge of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, William Blackwood & Sons, 1873, pp. 51-52; Harry Carr, Minutes of the Lodge of Edinburgh, Quatuor Coronati Lodge, 1962, pp. 49-51).
There are three separate minutes dated July 3, 1634 which record the admission of Lord Alexander, his brother, Sir Anthony, and Sir Alexander Strachan, into the Lodge of Edinburgh. These are the earliest records of the admission of non-operatives in Scotland or in the world for that matter (Carr, Minutes of the Lodge of Edinburgh, p. 101). But we don't know how they were admitted or if they went through any initiation ceremonies.
The earliest date at which non-operatives are known to have been received into an English lodge is 1646. Elias Ashmole records in his diary: "1646 Oct: 16. 4H. 30'. P.M. I was made a Free Mason at Warrington in Lancashire..." (Douglas Knoop, G. P. Jones & Douglas Hamer, Early Masonic Pamphlets, London, Q. C. Correspondence Circle, 1978, p. 40). There is no telling how he was initiated.
Anyway, by the time Freemasonry was in the process of development, the days of Norman French and Anglo-Saxon had long gone. The earliest extant catechism is the Edinburgh Register House MS. (1696). Other early catechisms and rituals were produced in the 1700s. They were much shorter and simpler than what we use today. In the early days, the candidate was introduced, took an oath of fidelity and secrecy and was given the sign and word. And that was all. The meaning of the ceremonies and that of the symbols and emblems of Masonry were taught by means of catechetical lectures. (As the ceremonies were short, the first two degrees were often conferred on the same evening, it was rather rare to confer all three degrees at one meeting, though.) The esoteric portion of the lectures was developed and influenced in the last quarter of the 18th century by the writings of men such as Wellins Calcott (1726-after 1779), William Hutchinson (1732-1814) and William Preston (1742-1818) (John Hamill, "Consolidation and Change-The Union of 1813," Transactions of the Lodge of Research No. 2429 for 1977, p. 53; Wallace McLeod, "Some Ritual Origins," The Short Talk Bulletin for October 1996, pp. 4-6).
And as Bro. Harry Carr says, "More than 99 percent of it [the masonic ritual] is in simple and beautiful English, and practically all of it is readily comprehensible even to simple folk," although there are some passages which would lend themselves to further interpretation (The Freemason at Work, revised by Frederick Smyth, London, A. Lewis, 1985, p. 131). It seems, therefore, word pairs were used to stimulate the hearer’s memory and/or give emphasis rather than "make sure that no misunderstanding was possible." Also some old-fashioned expressions and usages found in our ritual could have been used to give the ritual a tinge of archaism.^
26. E. H. Cartwright, A Commentary on the Freemasonic Ritual (London: A. Lewis, 1985), p. 151.^
27. Carr, The Freemason at Work (Note 25), p. 314.^

This is a slightly expanded version of "Notes on 'Hele'" which originally appeared in the June 2000 issue of The Philalethes (pp. 57-60). Reprinted with permission of the author.


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