English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Can you listen askance?

Q: What’s the deal with “askance”? It’s invariably used with “look” (or “watch”), as in “They looked askance at her unorthodox proposal.” Would it be correct to say someone “listened askance”?

A: It’s possible to read too much into a word, as you’ve done here. In the case of “askance,” you’re taking a figurative usage a bit too far.

The adverb “askance” literally means sideways or obliquely or askew. So on a strictly literal level, to “look askance” means to look out of the corner of one’s eye.

Of course, we all know that a sidelong glance can express skepticism or mistrust. That’s why for nearly 500 years the expression “to look askance” has had the figurative meaning “to be skeptical or mistrustful.”

Because this figurative usage is so well established, dictionaries (though not the Oxford English Dictionary) now define “askance” as meaning with skepticism, suspicion, or disapproval.

What some standard dictionaries fail to say is that in modern English, “askance” is rarely used except with verbs of seeing—as in “look askance,” “view askance,” or “eye askance.”

Only about half the dictionaries we’ve checked say specifically that “askance” is used in describing a look or a glance.

However, all of them, both British and American, use verbs of seeing to illustrate the use of the word: “tourists are looking askance” … “they eyed the stranger askance” … “the company may view askance your plan for early retirement,” and so on.

So the answer to your question is no—“askance” is not normally used with a verb like “listen.”

Figurative usages generally retain some element of reality, and people generally don’t listen sideways. Modifying such verbs with “askance” would stretch the figurative usage all out of shape.

“Askance” is interesting to etymologists because nobody knows for sure where it came from. Most sources, including the OED, date “askance” from the early 16th century and say its etymology is unknown.

However it developed, etymologists agree that the adverb meant sideways or askew when it first showed up.

The OED’s earliest example (written as “a scanche”) appeared in a French-English dictionary published in 1530. The English “a scanche” was defined in French as “de travers, en lorgnant” (askew, eying).

Another early literal usage cited by Oxford is this one from a poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt, written sometime before his death in 1542: “For as she loked ascaunce, vnder a stole she spied two stemyng Ise [glowing eyes] In a rownde hed.”

While the adverb has been used throughout its history with verbs related to looking or viewing, it has occasionally been used with others, mostly in poetry. The OED has these examples, both from long poems:

“He bid his Angels turne ascanse / The Poles of Earth” (from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 1667).

“They meet, they dart away, they wheel askance” (from James Beattie’s The Minstrel, 1771).

And the OED has a lone example of the adverb used with “speak” to mean “with a side or indirect meaning.” It comes from Algernon Charles Swinburne’s Erechtheus, 1876):  “Journeying to the bright God’s shrine / Who speaks askance and darkling.”

But these days, “askance” is used almost exclusively in figurative expressions that include verbs related to sight. This is how the OED explains the usage:

“In the fig. phrases to look, eye, view askance the idea expressed has varied considerably, different writers using them to indicate disdain, envy, jealousy, and suspicion. The last of these is now the prevalent idea, and to look at, eye, view askance = to look at with mistrust.”

The earliest example for the figurative use of “askance” is from Edmund Spenser’s poem The Shepheardes Calender (1579): “That scornefully lookes askaunce.”

And Ben Jonson used the expression in his comic play Every Man Out of His Humor (1600): “Nay boy, neuer looke askaunce at me for the matter.”

Not all of the figurative examples in Oxford come from literature, though. In his book The Life and Growth of Language (1875), William Dwight Whitney wrote about “words … which come to be looked askance at and avoided.”

We mentioned above that the origin of “askance” has never been pinned down with any certainty.

The OED mentions some suggestions by philologists over the years: that it comes from the Italian a schiancio (“bias, slanting, sloping or slopingly, aslope, across”); or the Old Norse á ská (“askew”); or the Jutlandish ad-skands or West Frisian skân, schean, which could have a connection with the Dutch schuin (“sidewise, oblique”).

As Oxford explains in a note, “there is a whole group of words of more or less obscure origin” beginning with “ask-,” including “askance,” “askant,” “askew” and others that are now long dead: “askie,” “askile,” “askoye,” and “askoyne.”

These “ask-” words are “more or less closely connected in sense,” they appeared “mostly in the 16th or end of the 15th” century, and they “seem to have influenced one another in form,” the OED says.

But none of them can be “certainly” traced back to Old English, Oxford says. And “though they can nearly all be paralleled by words in various languages, evidence is wanting as to their actual origin and their relations to one another.”

A dissenting view comes from the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, which suggests that “askance” has a longer history.

Chambers maintains that the adverb developed from a late 14th-century conjunction found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales—“ascaunce,” meaning “as if, pretending that.”

This word, Chambers says, “appears to be an alteration of earlier ase quances meaning ‘in such a way that, even as.’ ”

And Chambers traces “ase quances,” which appeared in the early 1300s, through Old French quances (as though) back to the Latin quasi (as if, as it were, almost).

While acknowledging that this explanation is “contrary to most sources,” Chambers says it “follows the semantic and structural evidence of the Middle English Dictionary.”

So “askance” may have originated as a 14th-century Latinate conjunction or it may have appeared as a 16th-century adverb traveling incognito. We’ll say only that etymologists disagree, and leave it at that.

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