June 26, 2013

Case File #013.06.26: WOEBEGONE

Have you ever wondered why woebegone seems as if it should mean “no more woe” or “the woe is gone” when it really means the exact opposite? Well, turns out it's a homonymic issue. That is, even though the begone in woebegone looks and sounds exactly like the poetic imperative that means “leave” or “go away,” it's actually a different word altogether. Still confused? Okay, perhaps it will help if we go back to the beginning. The beginning for woebegone, I mean. You see, it all started in the late twelfth century and with these two words: wo, which meant “sadness” or “grief,” and bigon, which meant “to beset” or “to overwhelm.” Thus, the Middle English phrase wo bigon meant “to be overwhelmed with grief.” When, during the thirteenth century, the spelling of wo changed to woe and bigon became begone (sometimes spelled begon), the phrase wo bigon naturally followed suit and became woe begone. Yet the meanings of the words didn't change—the poetic imperative begone, meaning “go away,” wasn't formed until the end of fourteenth century—so when the verb phrase finally contracted into a single word circa 1300, it became woebegone, the now familiar but seemingly misleading adjective that means “full of woe” or “sad or miserable in appearance.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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