The Grammarphobia Blog

When “mortify” meant to kill

Q: At the end of Pride and Prejudice, Miss Bingley is “mortified” by Darcy’s marriage to Elizabeth. I’ve read the novel umpteen times, but it just struck me that “mortify” must have something to do with death. What is the connection?

A: Yes, the verb “mortify” has a deadly history.

When English adopted it in the late 1300s from the Anglo-Norman mortifier, the word in both languages meant “to put to death.”

It’s ultimately derived from the classical Latin combining elements mort- (death) and -ficāre (to cause), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Over the years, “mortify” took on many other senses, some influenced by medieval Latin, Old French, and Middle French, and others originating in English.

The earliest example for “mortify” in the OED is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “Þe lord mortefieþ & qwekeneþ, bryngeþ down to hellis & aȝeeyn bryngeþ” (“The Lord mortifieth and awakeneth, bringeth down to hell and bringeth redemption”).

Here are some obsolete, historical, or rare meanings of “mortify” and the earliest dates for them in the OED:

“Weaken” (circa 1390), “alter a metal, as with alchemy” (c. 1395), “die” (c. 1475), “donate property” (1479), “be an ascetic” (1568), “tenderize meat” (1572), and “become gangrenous” (1603).

The usual sense today (“to embarrass or humiliate”) showed up in the early 17th century. The first Oxford example is from The Ball, a 1639 comedy by the English dramatist James Shirley: “We come to mortifie you.”

The most recent citation in Oxford is from Parallel Lives, a 1985 book by Phyllis Rose about the marriages of five Victorian writers: “It mortified Effie that her husband [John Ruskin] left her constantly alone.”

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