Q: I recently saw an incredible production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and the word “dast” was used several times. Miller also uses it in the requiem speech in Death of a Salesman. I’ve never heard the word used other than in these plays and was wondering about its derivation. I can’t find it in the dictionary, but the meaning seems clear enough when heard in context.
A: When Arthur Miller uses “dast” in All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, he’s using a form of the verb “dare.” In the requiem speech of Salesman, for example, Miller’s character Charley says of Willy Loman, “Nobody dast blame this man.”
“Dast” is a bit of American dialect that’s found in plays and novels depicting working-class or countrified speech.
Sometimes it means “dare” (or “dares”), sometimes “dared,” and sometimes the tense is ambiguous or irrelevant. Ogden Nash covered all the bases when he wrote: “I’d rather, if I dared or dast, conceal my academic past.”
You’re more likely to find “dast” in older works of fiction than in contemporary ones. Here’s an example from Sweet Cicely: Or Josiah Allen as a Politician (1885), by Marietta Holley, who was a best-selling satirical novelist in her day:
“I dast not, I dast not let my companion go from me into Washington. No! I felt that I dast not, as his mind was, let him go into temptation.” (Holley wrote this novel, and several others, in the folksy rural dialect of her first-person narrator Samantha Allen, Josiah’s wife.)
And here’s a quote from another novel, The Shepherd of the Hills (1907), by Harold Bell Wright: “Ain’t ‘nother man or woman in the whole country would dast spend the night here, Dad; except Pete, of course.”
Some authorities have speculated that “dast” may have come about as a back-formation of the negative “dasn’t” – also spelled “dassn’t” or “dassent” – a regional American contraction once used for forms of “dare” plus “not.” (A back formation is a word formed by dropping a real or imagined part from another word.)
[Note: We’ve also written a post about “dasn’t.”]
Apparently, “dasn’t” was easier to say than “daren’t” or “daresn’t.” Another American playwright, Eugene O’Neill, used this one in Mourning Becomes Electra (1931): “You dasn’t stay there till moonrise at ten o’clock.”
At any rate, “dast” isn’t so far-fetched when you consider that a past-tense form of “dare” used to be “durst.” What’s more, back when people used “thou” instead of “you” for the second-person singular, they said “thou darst” (pronounced DAIRST).
In the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries, the second-person singular was “dearst,” “darst,” “daerst,” or “derst,” and the Oxford English Dictionary has a “dearst” citation from Beowulf.
No wonder the lexicographer R. W. Burchfield described “dare” as “one of the subtlest and most variegated verbs in the language.”
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