The Grammarphobia Blog

Woes by any other name

Q: In your Jan. 7, 2009, posting, you cite the tongue-in-cheek title of Pat’s grammar book Woe Is I as an example of hypercorrection, and say “woe is me” has been good English for generations. How did “woe is me” come to be accepted? Did it evolve from “woe is to me”?

A: Linguists say “woe,” that unhappy word, has been used as an exclamation of lament since before writing was invented.

It’s believed to come from prehistoric Indo-European, and it has been used in English, spelled in a variety of ways (wa, wae, way, etc.), since at least as far back as the 700s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Similarly, “woe is me” has long been a common lament in English usage and a frequent refrain in literature. But why “me” instead of “I”?

We know that subject pronouns like “I” and “he” have traditionally followed linking verbs like “be.” (The title of Pat’s book Woe Is I was intended as a humorous riff on taking this old grammatical rule too far.)

So why is the familiar expression “woe is me” instead of “woe is I”? Here’s how the OED explains it:

Pronouns in the old dative case (objects like “me,” “him,” “us,” “them,” and so on) were once used with the word “woe,” either “with or without a verb of being or happening, in sentences expressing the incidence of distress, affliction, or grief.”

The first citation in the OED is in Old English and it comes from Beowulf, written in the early 8th century: Wa biedh thaem (“woe be them”). Here are a few similar expressions and the dates they were recorded:

Wo ys him (“Woe is him” 1300); wo thee be (1390); wa is yow (“woe is you,” 1400-50, also around 1560); “Woe were us” (1583); “Woes us” (“Woe is us,” 1680); and ”Woe is him” (1636).

Note: We’ve used italics for the Old English and Middle English citations; thee and yow are objects in the examples above.

Of course the woeful expression most frequently seen, and the one that’s survived, is “woe is me.” And yes, “woe is me” is the common form, though it has occasionally been rendered as “woe is to me” or “woe is unto me.”

It means, says the OED, “I am distressed, afflicted, unfortunate, grieved.”

The earliest citations, all spelled wa is me or wais me, are from around 1205, 1240, 1375, and 1400-1450. Wo is me was recorded around 1400 and 1480, as well as in 1729; “wayis me” in 1513; “wae is me” in 1579, and “Waes me” in 1785 (Robert Burns).

We finally encounter “woe is me” itself in 1570, 1587, 1596 (in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene),  around 1599 (in Shakespeare’s Hamlet), 1780 (Robert Burns again), 1798 (Wordsworth), 1837 (in Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution), 1842 (Tennyson), and so on into present-day English.

Biblical citations for the expression can also be found. We’ll excerpt a few here, from the King James Version:

Psalms 120:5 (“Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar!”); Isaiah 6:5 (“Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone”); Jeremiah 4:31 (“Woe is me now! for my soul is wearied because of murderers”).

Also, Jeremiah 10:19 (“Woe is me for my hurt! my wound is grievous”); Jeremiah 15:10 (“Woe is me, my mother, that thou hast borne me a man of strife”);  Jeremiah 45:3 (“Thou didst say, Woe is me now!  for the LORD hath added grief to my sorrow”); and Micah 7:1 (“Woe is me!”).

Many people have suggested that “me” is used instead of “I” in the expression because there’s a missing but understood preposition. They assume that “woe is me” is short for ”woe is unto me” or “woe is to me” or “woe is upon me.”

In effect, they’re inventing an apology for “woe is me” because they see it as ungrammatical.  We don’t see it that way.

No apology in the form of imaginary prepositions is necessary.

Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.