Notes on “Hele”

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...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.

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).4

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."5 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.6 "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."7

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."

Source: Yoshio Washizu



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 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.

5. 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).

6. Ibid., p. 82. Based on "an approximate summary in tabular form" by Prof. C. L. Wrenn and Prof. Daniel Jones.

7. Betts, op. cit. (Note 2), p. 5.