English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

How wonderful is wonderment?

Q: Which is more wonderful: “wonder” or “wonderment”? I wonder.

A: Standard dictionaries generally define the nouns “wonder” and “wonderment” much the same way: astonishment, awe, puzzlement, or something that arouses such emotions.

Is there a difference between the two words, aside from the extra syllable? Well, the Oxford English Dictionary describes the longer noun as “chiefly literary.”

Internet searches indicate that “wonder” is overwhelmingly more popular than “wonderment.” And many examples of the longer noun may seem stilted or affected to readers.

Of the two nouns, “wonder” is by far the oldest, dating back to Old English, Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old Norse, and other early Germanic languages.

When the word “wonder” (wundor or uundra in Old English) first showed up, it meant “something that causes astonishment,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is a reference to uundra gihuaes  (“wonder’s things”) from a hymn written around 700 by the Northumberland poet Cædmon.

And in the epic poem Beowulf, which is believed to date from the early 700s, many nobles travel great distances to “gaze upon the wonder” (wundor sceawian) of the monster Grendel’s tracks.

When the noun “wonderment” first appeared in the 1500s, it meant a wonder or the state of wonder.

The OED’s first citation is from a 1535 letter by William Barlow, prior of Haverfordwest Priory, to Thomas Cromwell, chief secretary of King Henry VIII.

In the letter, Barlow complains about the “most shamefull rumors raysed uppe to theyre dyffamacion, with slaunderouse wonderment of the towne.”

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