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Scandinavian loanwords in English in the 15th century (1).


The paper concentrates on the following two issues concerning Scandinavian loanwards in English in the fifteenth century: (i) the obsolescence of loanwords and (ii) the appearance of new Scandinavian loanwords which survived later in non-standard varieties of English. The possible reason for the disappearance of the obsolete loans seems to be the rivalry of synonyms, mostly of French and native origin. It is also interesting to observe that despite the influx of French vocabulary, Scandinavian loanwords surfaced in English dialects even four centuries after the Viking period. Some of them disappeared a few centuries later, e.g. hink, nait, ra, straw, stoop, etc., however, most of them survived well into the 20th century, e.g. arwal, garth, marrow, slape and soop.

0. Introduction

The history of Britain in the period from the end of the 8th to the 11th centuries was marked by the presence of the Vikings. They first came to plunder, then trade and finally to settle. During this period language contact took place between Norsemen speaking Old Norse (ON) and Englishmen speaking Old English (OE), which resulted in a number of Scandinavian loanwords in the English lexicon.

The present paper is devoted to the examination of Scandinavian loanwords in a later period, the 15th century. During that period a considerable number of words of Scandinavian origin went out of use. At the same time a high proportion of words of the same origin were recorded for the first time and survived exclusively in English dialects in the 19th and the 20th centuries.

The paper consists of two parts: the first part is devoted to the obsolescence of loanwords. Special interest will be attached to the rivalry between the obsolete words and their synonyms, especially those of French and native origin. The second part of the study deals with the appearance of new Scandinavian loanwords in the local dialects.

The material for the present study comes from the Oxford English dictionary (OED) supplemented by the Middle English dictionary (MED) as well as Wright's Dictionary of English dialects, Orton's Survey of English dialects (SED), McIntosh's A linguistic atlas of Late Medieval English (LALME), as well as Bjorkman (1900-1902), Rynell (1948), or more recent Hug (1987), Townend (2002) and Dance (2003).

1. Obsolete loanwords

Out of over 1500 Scandinavian loanwords found in the MED and the OED, 258 became obsolete in the 15th century, (2) which constitutes about half of all the Scandinavian obsoletisms found in the dictionaries. They exhibit a large diversity of meanings. Nouns constitute the largest group of investigated words, i.e. over a hundred. The second largest group, as far as the number is concerned, consists of verbs (81), then adjectives (46), adverbs (25) and two conjunctions and two prepositions.

The major reason for the disappearance of loans seems to be competition with both French and native synonyms. The largest group of obsolete words had an equivalent of French origin. It is not possible to examine all of them in the context of this paper, hence, only a few examples from each group will be described to illustrate the process of obsolescence.

The first loanword analysed is ME brinie 'armour for the body; a coat of mail' (3). It entered the English language in the second half of the 12th century. Etymologically, this word corresponds to OE byrne. However, both the form and the meaning of the ME brinie point to ON brynja 'breast-plate' as its immediate source. It is recorded in such works as Cotton Homilies, Layamon's Brut, King Horn, Havelok, Sir Tristrem, King of Tars, the last occurrence being dated to 1450. The word could have been replaced by the following French synonyms: brigandine, an OF word borrowed into English in the 15th century, meaning 'body armour composed of iron rings or small thin iron plates, sewed upon canvas, linen, or leather, and covered over with similar materials'; hauberk 'a piece of defensive armour: originally intended for the defense of the neck and shoulders; but already in the 12th and the 13th c. developed into a long coat of mail, or military tunic, usually of ring or chain mail, which adapted itself readily to the motions of the body'. The word was introduced at the end of the 13th century. It was first recorded in R. Gloucester. Additionally, the French noun cuirass 'a piece of armour for the body (originally of leather); spec. a piece reaching down to the waist, and consisting of a breast-plate and a back-plate, buckled or otherwise fastened together; still worn by some European regiments of cavalry' was introduced at the end of the 15th century. At the same time, Caxton, as the first, used the expression coat of arms, which is a direct translation from French.

Another Scandinavian obsoletism which was displaced by a French synonym was agrote 'to cloy, cram, surfeit'. It was first recorded in English in 1385 in Chaucer's The legend of Good Women and survived only until 1430. After its death a number of synonyms of French origin replaced it. One of them was to farce 'to stuff, fill full of something', an adaptation of Old French farsir 'to stuff'. It was used by such authors as Barbour (1375), Chaucer (1386), and later by Douglas (1513), Stocker (1569), and others. The verb to stuff an adaptation of Old French estoffer 'to furnish, equip, garrison' entered the English language in the 14th century with the meaning 'to furnish (a fortified town, stronghold, an army, a commander, etc.) with men, munitions, and stores; to garrison (a town)'. However, its initial meaning evolved and since 1440, when it was used by Lydgate in Debate between the horse, goose, and sheep, it had the sense 'to fill (a receptacle); esp. to fill by packing the materials closely together, to cram full'. The initial meaning went out of use in the 17th century. Another synonym, to glut 'to overload or surfeit with food; hence, to surfeit, cloy, or sicken with excess of anything' was adopted after OF glut, glout 'greedy, gluttonous'. It was in use from 1400 (Destruction of Troy).

Finally, the last example of a Scandinavian loanword replaced by French synonyms which will be analysed is stem 'to debate with oneself, to contend'. It comes from ON stemna, stefna 'to summon, call before a tribunal'. It occurred first in Cursor Mundi in 1300 (OED), afterwards it was recorded in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (twice) and Wars of Alexander (three times). Its last occurrence was recorded in 1450. From the 13th century on, French equivalents of the word appear in English. In 1225 the verb to dispute 'to contend with opposing arguments or assertions; to debate or discourse argumentatively; to discuss, argue, hold disputation; often, to debate in a vehement manner or with altercation about something' was first recorded in Legendae Catholicae. Also in the 13th century, another verb of French origin was borrowed into English, namely to strive 'to contend, carry on a conflict of any kind; esp. to contend with an other or each other for (the possession of) something or for (a cause or principle)'. It was used with high frequency and occurred in works of such writers as Chaucer and Gower. Two other synonyms: to study 'to debate with oneself, deliberate, consider' and to debate come from the 14th century, the former becoming obsolete since the 18th century, the latter being still in use. And finally, a synonym which entered the language shortly before the Scandinavian loanword disappeared, i.e. to consider. It is an adaptation of Fr. considerer and means 'to view or contemplate attentively, to survey, examine, inspect, scrutinize'.

A number of Scandinavian loanwords were replaced by native synonyms. The outliving of OE synonyms and the death of the Scandinavian loanwords can be explained according to Dike (1933) also as due to rivalry between synonyms. The ones which were present in a language earlier survive, whilst the newer ones die out. "The writer compared more than 4000 words, and it is evident that the obsoletism postdates the living synonym four times in five--often by a century or more" (Dike 1933: 210). To illustrate this we will examine a few loanwords which were outlived by their English synonyms. One of them is ME scogh 'a wood'. It is an adaptation of ON scogr, which was in use from the 12th century (MED) until late 15th century (MED). Its English synonym hurst 'a grove of trees; a copse; a wood; a wooded eminence' was in use from the 9th century, had a gap in occurrence and in 1400 it reappeared in Morte Arthur. Its last record was made by Ellis in 1871. Another OE word with a similar meaning to scogh was wood 'a collection of trees growing more or less thickly together (esp. naturally, as distinguished from a plantation), of considerable extent, usually larger than a grove or copse (but including these), and smaller than a forest; a piece of ground covered with trees, with or without undergrowth', which has been in use continuously from the 9th century on. Grove may be added to the list of synonyms, which was also in continuous use.

Ware 'pus, matter' is another Scandinavian loanword which competed with OE equivalents. It comes from ON var and was present in the English language from the end of the 12th century until 1450, (4) when it last appeared in St. Cuthbert. It could have been replaced by such native synonyms as atter (OE atr, ator, attor) initially meaning 'poison, venom' (1000-1400), and 'gall, bitterness' (700-1430). However, in the second half of the 14th century its meaning evolved into 'corrupt matter, pus, from a sore, ulcer, abscess', when it was used for the first time by Trevisa and it is still in use in the northern dialects today. Filth is another native word which was in use with the meaning 'foul matter; putrid matter, corruption, rottenness; in later use, purulent matter, pus' since 1000 (The holy gospels in Anglo-Saxon). The meaning survived until the end of the 17th century. However, the word continued to appear until the 19th century with the meaning 'a vile creature; a scoundrel; a slut, drab, whore', which was used dialectally. The word with the meaning 'the police' was used throughout the 20th century in criminal slang. Additionally, the English word worsum 'purulent matter, pus' was also present in the language from 825 until the 19th century, with gaps in occurence in the 11th, 14th and 15th centuries.

And finally, the last word analysed here is file 'a worthless person (male or female), a rascal', an ON adaptation of fyla 'foulness, fig. foul person'. It entered the English language in the 13th century and was in use until 1450 (Castle Persev.). Its place was taken by such native synonyms as: ME lorel 'a worthless person, rogue, blackguard', which appeared in the 14th century and was used by such writers as Chaucer, Wyclif, More and many others. The word disappeared in the 2nd half of the 17th century. Similarly, in 1362 another native equivalent of the word in question appeared, e.g. losel 'a worthless person, rogue, blackguard'. It was in continuous use with high frequency until the end of the 19th century.

A few words which went out of use in the 15th century were replaced by synonyms with a broader meaning. For example, bengere 'a corn-bin' was displaced by the native bin meaning a receptacle of various kinds. In 1386 it was used for the first time with the meaning 'a receptacle for holding corn, meal, bread, fruit, and other articles of consumption; a hutch'. Similarly, colle 'a cask, wine-vessel' and gro 'a kind of fur' were replaced by the French vessel (ad. of OF vaissel) and fur (ad. of OF forte), respectively. The former meaning 'any article designed to serve as a receptacle for a liquid or other substance, usually one of circular section and made of some durable material; esp. a utensil of this nature in domestic use, employed in connection with the preparation or serving of food or drink, and usually of a size suitable for carrying by hand. It appeared often with defining term preceding (sometimes hyphened), indicating its special use, as dairy, drinking, kitchen, milk-, wine-vessel' and the latter meaning 'the short, fine, soft hair of certain animals (as the sable, ermine, beaver, otter, bear, etc.) growing thick upon the skin, and distinguished from the ordinary hair, which is longer and coarser'. The observable tendency is to replace many words with one which has a broader meaning and could be employed with a defining term indicating its special use, e.g. wine-vessel, corn-bin, etc.

According to Visser (1949), the only cause of obsolescence which is relatively easy to detect is the death of words which are no longer needed, such as those denoting customs, institutions, objects which went out of use, etc. "For when things no longer exist the necessity of referring to them will gradually disappear as well" (Visser 1949: 7). It seems that in the 15th century only 7 words of Scandinavian origin became obsolete due to being dysfunctional. Those were: askebathie and askefise both being terms 'of reproach among northern nations for an unwarlike fellow who stayed at home in the chimney-corner'; housecarl 'a member of the household troops of a Danish king, an armed retainer'; russwale 'walrus hide'; rew 'a burr for a rivet', slenger 'a soldier armed with a sling' and weilster 'a female professional mourner'.

2. Dialectal loanwords

At the time of the disappearance of the words discussed above, a fairly sizable number of Scandinavian loanwords (5) (91) appeared in English and a considerable amount of these words survived in the dialects until today. Taking into account the fact that in the 15th century the Scandinavian influence on the English language was no longer present, the earlier date of borrowing is obvious. It was pointed out by Serjeantson (1962: 10) that
 ... it must be emphasized that the 'first recorded use' of a word,
 especially in the earlier periods, does not necessarily imply
 'first use', (a) because a word may be in current use for some time
 before it appears in any written document, and (b) because
 obviously many words may have been recorded for the first time in
 documents no longer extant.

66 loanwords in question belong to three major semantic fields: "farming/nature" (29), "humans" (19) and "animals" (18). The other 25 words can be assigned to "atmospheric phenomena" (4), "ceremonies" (2), "legal terms" (2) and a group of 17 words of various meanings. As regards their meaning, the new loans did not replace the obsolete items in any way.

Some of the loanwords went out of use within a few centuries after they entered the local dialects. It is of no surprise that all the words denoting 'ceremonies' and 'legal terms' went out of use, e.g. arval 'a funeral feast' (1865), wattle 'the obligation, imposed on landed proprietors in Orkney and Shetland, of giving entertainment to the Foud on his annual journey through the islands for the administration of justice; in later times, a tax for which this obligation was commuted' (1840), also words denoting objects which no longer exist became obsolete, e.g. scraw 'a scroll or tag of parchment or leather' (1641). Most of the loans, however, have survived, e.g. ME marrow 'a companion, fellow-worker, partner, mate', a word of Scandinavian origin, was borrowed into the local dialects in 1440 (Promptorium Parvulorum), OED records it seven times in the 16th c., twice in the 17th c., five times in the 19th c. and five times in the 20th c. It appeared as late as in 1989 in Vintage roadscene. Maw 'a gull, esp. the common gull, Larus canus' has occurred in the English dialects since 1448, when it was used for the first time by Holland in Book howlat and continued to appear until 1994, when it was used by de Luca in Voes and sounds. ME soop 'to sweep (a house)' occurred for the first time in 1480 in Henryson's Fables, Cock and jewel. Its last use was recorded in 1976 in Alyn and Deeside Observer. In the 19th century, the word acquired a second meaning of 'to assist the progress of (a curling-stone) by sweeping the ice in front of it', it occurred from 1805 (McIndoe's Poems) to 1963 (Times). Another loanword of numerous occurrences is tyke meaning (i) 'a dog, usually in depreciation or contempt, a low-bred or coarse dog, a cur, a mongrel' and (ii) 'a low-bred, mean, surly, or ill-mannered fellow; a boor'. The word has been in use since the beginning of the 15th century, the last record of the word with the first meaning was made by Brown in 1861, whilst with the second meaning in 1981 in Verbatim. There is also a large group of words whose last appearance given by the OED is dated to the end of the 19th century, however, they are not marked obsolete, which may suggest that the entry has not been updated with later occurrences of the loans. Some of the examples are: bigg 'the four-rowed barley, an inferior but harder variety of the six-rowed or winter barley, of rapid growth, and suited to inferior soils and more northern latitudes', whose first occurrence is dated to 1450 by Wright and Wulcker, who included the word in their Anglo-Saxon and OM English vocabularies; cleg 'a gadfly, horse-fly, or breeze' has been in use since 1440 (Promptorium Parvulorum) and its last appearance was recorded in 1872 in Daily News; hagworm 'a northern name for the adder or viper; but in some districts applied to the common snake, and in others to the blindworm' appeared in the English dialects in the 2nd half of the 15th century and was recorded until 1891; rown 'the roe of a fish', occured 16 times in the OED and its last appearance was dated 1800-present; snod 'smooth, sleek; even' occurred from 1480 to 1898 and stoop 'a post, pillar', which has over 20 citations in the OED, entered the English dialects in the 1st half of the 15th century.

13 of the dialectal loanwords are recorded in Survey of English dialects. They occur with highest frequency in the northern counties, since that part of the country was mostly exposed to the Scandinavian influence. However, only five loans (axle-tooth 'a molar tooth', graip 'a three- or four-pronged fork used as a dungfork or for digging', hagworm 'an adder', slape 'slippery, smooth', and steg 'a gander') are recorded exclusively in the northern counties (see Map I). Two words of Scandinavian origin which entered the language in the 15th century, i.e. lug 'ear' and mug 'to drizzle', reach the southern counties of England (see Map II). They occur in Kent (lug 7 times), Surrey (lug twice), Sussex (lug), Berkshire (lug 3 times), Sommerset (mug twice, and lug once), and Devonshire (mug twice). Both in the OED and the MED mug is recorded only once in 1400 (Sir Gawain), its next occurrence is dated in the OED to 1825. Lug entered the English language with the meaning 'one of the flaps or lappets of a cap or bonnet, covering the ears', changing its meaning later to 'ear'. In the 16th and 17th centuries it was used as a slang word, e.g. "Then the gentle woman let loose his ears, and let his head, and away went he home with his bloody lugges" (OED: Greene 1592). In Scotland, by the 19th century the word became the only one in use denoting 'ear', the English 'ear' becoming obsolete except in combinations.

As far as the other parts of England are concerned, East Midland counties constitute the second area where Scandinavian loans are most frequent. Here SED records: snathe 'to remove by lopping', lop 'a flea', brough 'a halo', mawk 'a maggot', maw 'a gull', sile, and also lug and mug (see Map III).

3. Concluding remarks

Despite a few hundred years which passed since the Scandinavian invasion, the 15th c. was full of traces of the Viking presence on the British Isles, which was reflected in the Scandinavian vocabulary used throughout the country. At the same time, the 15th c. was the period when a considerable number of Scandinavian loanwords was lost. The evidence shows that the presence of Normans and the prestige connected with the French language played a significant role in the displacement of the vocabulary of Scandinavian origin.

However, in spite of the influx of French vocabulary into English, four centuries after the Viking period, the Norse loans still surface in English dialects, not only in the northern counties but also in the Midlands, and to a lesser extent even in the Southern. This can be explained by the fact that they must have existed in the spoken usage several centuries before they were written down.

APPENDIX A: Obsolete loanwords

Words which disappeared in the 15th century



angard (n)






bleiken (v)

bleik (adj)



bole ax


broth (adj)

breth (n)

brin (n)

brinie (n)

brixlen (v)

brixel (n)

brothely (adj)

brothely (adv)






derf (n)

derfly (adj)




dun (v)



enker grene

evening (n & adj)


fere (n)

fern (n)



fro (n)

gein (n)



gete (n)

gilder (v)




goodlaik (n)

graith (adj & adv)

greme (adj)






hein (n)





imelle (adv & prep)


kete (adj)

keven (v)



lith (n)

lote (n)

loten (v)

lothen (adj)




menske (n)

menske (adj)

mensken (v)

menskfully (adv)


mire (n)



moal (n)


nait (v)


nigardie (n)

noucin (n)

nitere (n)

niten (v)

nithinghede (n)

nothing (n)





onde (n)

onden (v)

orrest (n)

overgart (n)



querte (n)

querte (adj)

queven (v)

raike (n)


reuthnes (n)

reuthly (adj)

riken (v)


rothen (vl)

rothelen (v1)

rothun (n)

ruthen (v1)






scough (n)

scu (n)


seem (adj)

serekin (adj)

serekines (adj)

serelepes (adv)

serely (adv)

sernes (n)

sete (adj)

sisal (adj)

site (n)

siteful (adj)

skeet (adj & adv)

slabben (v)

slengen (v)

slenger (n)

sluggi (adj)

snart (adj)

snart (adv)

snoberly (adv)

snorkel (n)

spaken (v)

spenne (n)

stevenen (v)

swange (n)

sware (v)

sware (n)

swonge (adj)

taite (n)

tharnen (v)

thethenward (adv)

threnge (n)

threngen (v)

threten (v)

thro (n)

thro (adv)

throen (v)

tor (adj)



umbe (prep & adv)


umstount (adv)


uprase (n)

weiken (v)

ware (n)

weinen (v)

weining (ger)

weke (n)

welen (v)

welken (v)

whethen (adv & conj)

withernam (n)


woth (adj)

Words which occurred and disappeared in the 15th century

aa (n)

























leit (n)



mothe (adj)

mourken (v)





onded (adj)

ondeles (adj)

onding (ger)







reuthly (adv)


rothen (v2)

rotenly (adj)

rothelen (v3)

runian (n)

ruthen (v2)


scathly (adj)

scathly (adv)


scopen (v)

scope (n)

siselie (adv)

siten (v)

sleightful (adj)

slent (n)


snartly (adv)

sory (adj)

spildur (n)


sterneles (adj)

stiggen (v)

telwen (v)



twingen (v)


wandsom (adj)

wandsomly (adv)

wat (n)

weilster (n)



APPENDIX B: Dialectal loanwords which entered the English language in the 15th century

a. FARMING: bigg 'a kind of barley', garn 'worsted', goaf 'the quantity of grain stacked in one bay of a barn', graip 'a kind of dung-fork', hag 'a hedge', hain 'to enclose or protect with a fence or a hedge', hake 'a hook', hulver 'holly', ing 'a meadow', kevel 'to bit or bridle', kilp 'a handle', lea 'a scythe', nab 'a projecting or jutting part of a hill or a rock', rain 'a strip of land, a ridge, a division between lands or fields', risom 'a stalk of corn', say 'a bucket for domestic or other use, with two ears through which a pole may be passed as a handle', scamble 'a kind of bench', scavel 'a small spade', scrab 'the crab or wild apple', seave 'a rush, a rushlight', sile 'a strainer or sieve', sile 'to go, pass, move', snathe 'to prune or lop (trees), to remove by lopping', soop (sooping) 'to sweep, remove, clear away by sweeping', sore 'mud, black mud, liquid manure, drainage', sye 'a sieve, strainer', tathe 'the dung of cattle, sheep, etc. left for manure on land which they have been pastured', tathe 'to manure', theat 'the ropes or traces, by means of which horses draw in a carriage, plough, or harrow';

b. ANIMALS, INSECTS AND BIRDS: cleck 'to hatch', cleg 'a gadfly, horse-fly', cloe 'to claw', gait 'a boar, hog', gimmer 'a kind of a ewe', ginners 'the gills of a fish', hagworm 'an adder or viper', inmeat 'the internal parts or viscera of an animal which are used for food', lop 'a flea', maw 'a gull', mawk 'a maggot', rawn/rown 'the roe of a fish', skite 'to void excrement', steg 'a gander', tyke 'a dog, a mongrel', waithing 'fishing', yure 'an udder';

c. HUMANS: axle-tooth 'a molar tooth', hink 'to halt, to falter', hoast "to cough', lug 'an ear', marrow 'a companion, a fellow worker', marrow 'to join, associate; to bring together, pair; to find a match for', melder 'a quantity of meal ground at one time', muster 'to whisper, speak privately', querken 'to choke, suffocate, stifle', rame 'to shout, cry, scream', rove 'scabby, scaly or scurfy condition of the skin', skirl 'to scream, shriek, cry out shrilly', spaeman 'prophet, fortune-teller', storken 'to become stout, sturdy, strong; to grow', swaver 'to stager, to totter', sword sliper 'a sword sharpener', tave 'to move the limbs ineffectually, to sprawl', thumble-toe 'the great toe', waithman "a hunter';

d. ATMOSPHERIC PHENOMENA: brough 'a luminous ring or circle around a shinng body, esp. the moon, a halo', lown 'of the weather: calm, quiet, still', rug 'drizzling rain', swale 'shade, the cool, the cold';

e. CEREMONIES/HOLIDAYS: arval 'funeral feast', Skire Thursday 'the day next before Good Friday';

f. LEGAL TERMS: kirset 'exemption from the payment of taxes', wattle 'the obligation imposed on landed proprietors in Ork. and Shet. of giving entertainment to the foud on his annual journey through the island for the administration of justice' ;

g. OTHERS: addle 'to earn, gain'; algate 'always, in every way, in any case'; bain 'ready, willing'; baiter 'to dance'; bask 'bitter, irritating to the senses'; clag 'to bedaub, clog'; hag 'to cut, hew, chop'; nait 'useful, good at need'; ra 'a sail-yard'; risp 'to rub, to grate together; to rasp or file'; scraw 'a scroll or tag of parchment or leather'; slape 'slippery, smooth; also crafty, cunning, deceitful'; snod 'smooth, sleek; even'; stoop 'a post, pillar'; streak "to stroke; to make level, flat or even; to rub or smear; to spread, lay evenly'; uthe 'harmony'; withgang 'success, advantage, profit';


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Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznah

(1) This is a revised version of a paper presented at the 41st International Congress of Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan, May 2006. I would like to acknowledge here with gratitude the generous support of The Kosciuszko Foundation, an American centre for Polish culture, New York, which made my participation in the Congress possible.

(2) For the list of the loanwords, see Appendix A.

(3) All the meanings are taken from the OED unless stated otherwise.

(4) It may be wrongly assumed that the word is restored in ModE -ware occuring in compounds such as software, hardware, etc. However, the second part of the compounds has been derived from OE waru being a collective term for 'articles of merchandise or manufacture; goods, commodities', hence, is not a remnant of the word in question.

(5) For the list of the words see Appendix B.
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Title Annotation:LINGUISTICS
Author:Bator, Magdalena
Publication:Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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