Q: I heard a radio DJ the other day, on a jazz station, using “albeit,” which is a nice word. I wonder if it’s a short form of an earlier phrase in the language.
A: We’ve mentioned “albeit” a couple of times on the blog, most recently in a 2015 post about the phrase “at all.”
As we wrote then, “all” can be an adjective, a pronoun, a noun, or an adverb. But once upon a time it was a conjunction as well.
The conjunctive use is almost unknown today, but a trace of it lives on in the word “albeit,” which is derived from the old phrase “all be it.” Today, it’s a venerable way of saying “although.”
Some language writers have dismissed “albeit” as archaic, but the word is alive and well today, according to our searches of the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English.
In the 1926 first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H. W. Fowler includes “albeit” in a list of archaisms. But in the 1965 second edition, Sir Ernest Gowers says the term “has since been picked up and dusted and, though not to everyone’s taste, is now freely used.”
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage describes the comments by Fowler, Gowers, and others as “a most curious business since albeit never seems to have gone out of use.”
The dictionary says the usage “may have faded somewhat in the later 19th century,” but it has “considerably increased in use since the 1930s, to judge by evidence in the Merriam-Webster files.”
The word “albeit” began life in the early 1300s as an expression made up of the old conjunction “all,” the verb “be,” and the pronoun “it,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED says it originally meant “though it is true that; even though; although” (pretty much what it means now).
The dictionary’s earliest example is from a Middle English entry, dated sometime before 1325, in Statutes of the Realm (2011), a compilation of English statute law:
“Also þerase man rauisez womman … mit strenkþe, albehit þat heo assente afterward, he sal habbe þilke iugement þat his iseid bifore” (“Also in that case where man ravishes woman … with violence, albeit that she assents afterward, he shall have such judgment as was said of him before”).
In “The Knight’s Tale” (circa 1385), Chaucer uses the three-word expression: “Al be it þt [that] it is agayn his kynde / Of al this stryf he kan remedie fynde.”
And here’s an OED example from Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline (c. 1611): “A worthy Fellow, / Albeit he comes on angry purpose now.”
The Merriam-Webster’s usage manual has many 20th-century examples from well-known writers, including Robert Frost, George Santayana, Vladimir Nabokov, E. B. White, and Mary McCarthy.
Here’s an example from “Time Out,” a poem in A Witness Tree, a 1942 collection of Frost’s poetry:
It took that pause to make him realize
The mountain he was climbing had the slant
As of a book held up before his eyes
(And was a text albeit done in plant).
We think “albeit” is a splendid old word! It may sound old-fashioned, but it’s here to stay. This is how R. W. Burchfield describes it in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.):
“One of the most persistent archaic-sounding words in the language.”
If you use it, make sure you pronounce it right. As Bryan A. Garner explains in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “The first syllable of albeit is pronounced like all, not like your friend Al.”