July 31, 2013

Case File #013.07.31: SEETHE

Seethe is another extant word with roots that wind all the way back to the Old English era. In those days, though, its form was seothan, and while it literally meant “to boil or stew something (such as food),” it was also used figuratively to mean “to try by fire” and “to ponder over an important issue.” During the Middle English period, the verb slowly lost those figurative senses, and around the end of the thirteenth century, its spelling was altered first to sethan and then to sethen. The current form seethe finally showed up in the late fourteenth century, after which the verb lost its literal association with cooking and took on its current senses of “to foam, bubble, or churn as if boiling” and “to move about in a hectic or chaotic manner.” And the contemporary figurative sense of seethe—that is, the sense of “to be in a state of extreme excitement, agitation, or anger”—is often credited to our old friend and prolific neologist William Shakespeare, who is said to have coined it in his play Troilus and Cressida in 1602.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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