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“Nobody dast blame this man”

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 contraction, mostly found in the northeastern US, for “dare not,” “dares not,” and “dared not.” (A back formation is a word formed by dropping a real or imagined part from another word.)

Apparently, “dasn’t” was easier to say than “daren’t” or “daresn’t” or “daredn’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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