Q: I often hear that things “augur” or “bode” ill or well. So is there a difference between auguring and boding?
A: We can imagine these words in the name of a Dickensian law firm: Tulkinghorn, Sampson, Augur & Bode.
To answer your question, the verbs “augur” and “bode” here mean the same thing—to be an omen of—so they’re more or less interchangeable.
If something “augurs [or bodes] well,” it’s a good sign. But if something “augurs [or bodes] ill,” brace yourself.
Why does English have two words for the same thing? Because we got one from each of the two great language streams that make up the language—the Latinate (“augur”) and the Germanic (“bode”). Here are their stories.
In Latin, an augur was a religious official who interpreted portents and omens, then advised the government on matters of public business.
The Latin noun was the source of the French verb augurere (to foresee or predict), from which English acquired “augur” in 1549, both as a verb and as a noun (meaning a soothsayer).
When the verb was first recorded (sometimes spelled “inauger”), it meant “to induct into office or usher in with auguries; to inaugurate,” the OED says. (We touched on the “augur”/”inaugurate” connection in a posting a couple of years ago.)
In the early 1600s, “augur” was first used in the Roman sense—meaning “to divine, forebode, or anticipate,” the OED says. And by the late 18th century, it was used in speaking of things that promised to bring good or ill.
The first such usage is attributed to Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in a letter of 1788: “One vote which augurs ill to the rights of the people.”
Now on to “bode,” a much older English word that dates back to Anglo-Saxon times.
In Old English, the verb bodian meant to announce, foretell, or predict, according to the OED. The earlier noun boda (messenger), was similar to words in Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old High German, Old Icelandic, and Old Norse.
The word’s earliest meaning, in the late 900s or so, was “to announce beforehand, foretell, predict, prognosticate, presage,” the OED says. The modern spelling, “bode,” first appeared in the 1200s.
In the late 1300s, Oxford says, “bode” was first used in speaking of things rather than people, and meant “to give promise of, be indicative of, betoken, portend.”
Toward the end of the 17th century, the notion of “boding well” (or ill) was born. John Dryden’s play Aureng-Zebe (1676) includes the lines “Sir, give me leave to say, what ever now / The omen prove, it boded well to you.”
One final note. Don’t confuse “augur” with “auger,” a Germanic word for a tool that bores holes in things. The two words are unrelated.
In fact, the word for the tool used to begin with “n”—it was spelled “nauger.” But during the Middle English period, people mistook the phrase “a nauger” for “an auger,” and eventually the “n” was dropped.
A similar thing happened with “apron” (formerly “napron”), “adder” (once “nadder”), and other words. We’ve touched on this phenomenon in a post a couple of years ago.
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