The Grammarphobia Blog

Misgivings about ‘misgiving’

Q: I’ve just used “misgiving” in an email, but it strikes me now that the word doesn’t make much sense. How can adding a negative prefix to “giving” result in a word that means a feeling of doubt or distrust?

A: The verb “give” once meant to suggest, so to give something was to suggest it, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. The addition of the prefix “mis-” (badly, wrongly) made the suggestion dubious.

Although the “suggest” sense of “give” is now archaic, Chambers says, it was still being used in the 19th century. The dictionary cites this example from Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel Ivanhoe: “Therefore, do as thy mind giveth thee.”

The noun “misgiving” was formed in the late 16th century when the suffix “-ing” was added to the verb “misgive,” which appeared in writing in the early 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first Oxford citation for “misgive” is from Thomas More’s History of King Richard III, which the British Library dates at 1513-18: “Were it that before such great thinges, mens hartes … misgiueth them.”

The OED adds that “misgive” combined the prefix “mis-” and the verb “give,” two terms of Germanic origin. In Old English, the prefix was mys-, mis-, or miss-, while the verb was geaf, géafon, or giefen.

The first Oxford citation for “misgiving” is from A Booke Which Sheweth the Life and Manners of All True Christians, a 1582 treatise by Robert Browne: “How doo they make light of his grace and blessinges? They haue their misgeuing from goodnes.”

Browne was founder of the Brownist dissenters, early separatists from the Church of England. Many Brownists were among the pilgrims who established Plymouth Colony, though Browne himself returned to the established church and became an Anglican priest.

The OED defines “misgiving” as a “feeling of mistrust, apprehension, or loss of confidence,” and notes that the noun is frequently used in the plural.

We’ll end with a plural example from Right Ho, Jeeves, a 1934 novel by P. G. Wodehouse. Here Bertie Wooster talks his Aunt Dahlia into pretending she’s lost her appetite in order to make Uncle Tom feel sorry for her:

“ ‘It’s all right,’ I said. ‘Have no misgivings. This is the real Tabasco.’ ” As usual, Bertie ends up in the soup—or, as he’d put it, waist high in the gumbo.

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