English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Had I but known …

Q: Ogden Nash named a category of mystery stories “HIBK” (for “Had I But Known”). The heroine (it’s almost always a woman), says something like, “Had I but known the killer escaped, I would not have gone for a walk in the woods.” The “but” changes a reasonable statement into one that’s melodramatic. How does it do that?

A: You bring up an interesting use of “but,” and one that’s often found in older literature.

Here, “but” means something like “only,” so “had I but known” is another way of saying “had I only known” or “if I had only known.”

Yes, the “but” could be dispensed with (“had I known”). However, its presence tightens the screw and adds a hand-wringing portent of doom.

This “had I but” formula is used with other verbs too: “had we but stayed,” “had she but gone,” “had they but seen,” and so on.

The construction uses elements of the past perfect tense (“I had known,” “they had seen,” and so on), rearranged and with “but” inserted.

Shakespeare’s plays have quite a few examples of the “had I but + verb” construction. We’ll quote only a couple:

“Had I but served my God with half the zeal / I served my king, he would not in mine age / Have left me naked to mine enemies” (Henry VIII, 1613).

“Had I but died an hour before this chance, I had lived a blessed time” (Macbeth, 1606).

And you’ll find the same construction in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813): “Had I but explained some part of it only—some part of what I learnt, to my own family! … But it is all, all too late now.”

Perhaps the best-known of these formulations is “had I but known.” The expression has its own Wikipedia entry and, as you mention, Ogden Nash poked fun at what he referred to as “the H.I.B.K. school” of 20th-century mystery fiction.

However, this didn’t start with the 20th century. There are many examples of “had I but known” in the literature of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

The earliest we’ve been able to find is from William Haughton’s comedy Englishmen for My Money: Or, A Woman Will Have Her Will (1616):

“O God, had I but known him; if I had, / I would have writ such letters with my sword / Upon the bald skin of his parching pate, / That he should ne’er have lived to cross us more.”

John Dryden used the device in his play The Spanish Fryar: Or, The Double Discovery (1680): “Had I but known that Sancho was his Father, / I would have pour’d a Deluge of my Bloud / To save one drop of his.”

And the playwright William Mountfort used it in his tragedy The Injur’d Lovers (1688):  “Had I but known / The evil Meanings of his Soul.”

There’s even more melodrama in these lines from Bussy D’Ambois: Or, The Husbands Revenge (1691), by Thomas D’Urfey: “Oh! Curs’d, Curs’d, Fate, had I but known the Fiends, / Not all the Powers of Heaven and Earth had sav’d ’em.”

In the 18th century, “had I but known” became quite common, appearing in the works of many prominent English writers.

In his erotic poem “The Delights of Venus” (1702) the Earl of Rochester writes: “Had I but known the Bliss, or had I guess’d / At the Delights with which I’m now posses’d, / I had not staid [waited] for Marriage.”

And here’s a sighting from Henry Fielding’s comedy The Wedding Day (written in the 1720s but not produced until 1743):

“Oh! Plotwel, had I but known thee sooner! had I but known a Friend like you, who could have armed my unexperienced Soul against the wicked Arts of this deceitful Man.”

Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa (1748) has this passage: “Had I but known that your ladyship was not married, I would have eat my own flesh, before—before—before” (much sobbing and weeping ensues).

The rest is history. By now, “had I but known” has become a literary cliché, especially in potboiler mysteries.

In case you’re wondering about the grammar here, we won’t leave you hanging.

The “had known” construction, as we said above, is identical to the past perfect tense. But in clauses like “had I but known,” “had I known,” and “if I had known,” the formulation is being used in a hypothetical way, so the mood is subjunctive—specifically, the past perfect subjunctive.

This isn’t as intimidating as it sounds, so stay tuned.

“Had I known” (or “had I but known”) is a conditional clause—it expresses a supposition. And as we’ve written before on the  blog, we use the subjunctive with some conditional clauses of an “iffy” or hypothetical kind: those that are contrary to fact (as in “if I were you”).

Well, “had I known” (or “had I but known”) is similarly a conditional clause that’s contrary to fact. But in this case, the subject and verb are reversed and there’s no “if.”

Take this sentence, for example: “Had I (but) known, I would never have opened the door to the laboratory.”

Within its entry for the verb “have,” the OED discusses sentences like that under “specialized uses of the past perfect subjunctive” (that is, “had”).

The OED would call that example “a counterfactual conditional sentence, with inversion of subject and verb instead of an if-clause.”

This is nothing new. The OED has many citations, beginning in late Old English and ending with this one from the November 2010 issue of Time Out New York:

“Had the show opened out of town, many of its narrative troubles might have been fixable.”

We should note that “but” conveys a sense of “only” in a similar construction, one in which it precedes a noun or noun phrase instead of a verb.

Here, the OED says, the conjunction “but passes into the adverbial sense of: Nought but, no more than, only, merely.” Oxford has several examples, including these:

“Premature consolation is but the remembrancer of sorrow” (Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield, 1766).

“My Love She’s but a Lassie Yet” (the title of a poem by Robert Burns, 1794).

“In arms the kingdom had but a single rival” (John Richard Green’s A Short History of the English People, 1876).

We might add an old chestnut that’s a favorite of Pat’s, “it was but the work of a moment,” an expression found in dozens of melodramatic 19th-century novels.

We’ll end with a few lines from Ogden Nash’s poem “Don’t Guess, Let Me Tell You,” which appeared in the April 20, 1940, issue of the New Yorker:

Personally, I don’t care whether a detective-story writer was educated in night school or day school
So long as he doesn’t belong to the H.I.B.K. school,
The H.I.B.K. being a device to which too many detective-story writers are prone;
Namely the Had-I-But-Known.

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