English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Betwixt and between

Q: Where am I when I’m “betwixt and between,” and how did I get there?

A: You’re neither here nor there. To answer the second part of your question, we’ll have to go back to Anglo-Saxon times.

When the individual words appeared in Old English (“betwixt” as betweox and “between” as betweonum), they were synonyms. And they still mean the same thing, though the old-fashioned “betwixt” now conveys an air of antiquity when used alone.

Both words are derived from prehistoric Germanic compounds—reconstructed as bi-twiska and bi-twihna—meaning “at the middle point of two,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

The earliest example for “between” in the Oxford English Dictionary (with be and tweonum separated) is from Beowulf, an epic poem that may have been written as early as 725. We’ve expanded the citation to give readers a better sense of the Anglo-Saxon writing:

“ðær wæs Beowulfes mærðo mæned; monig oft gecwæð þætte suðne norð be sæm tweonum ofer eormengrund oþer nænig under swegles begong selra nære rondhæbbendra, rices wyrðra.”

(“There was the glory of Beowulf hailed; it was oft said by many that nowhere south or north between the two seas, nowhere over the whole sweep of earth under the boundless heavens, was there ever one worthier to bear a shield or rule a kingdom.”)

The earliest OED example for “betwixt” is more down to earth. It’s in an Anglo-Saxon land charter, dated 931, from the reign of King Æðelstan: “betweox ða twégen wegas burh ðone leá” (“the meadow betwixt the two roads of the town”).

It took hundreds of years for the two words to come together in the expression “betwixt and between,” which the OED defines as “in an intermediate or middling position; neither one thing nor the other.” Merriam-Webster Unabridged defines it as “in a midway position” or “neither one thing nor the other.”

The first Oxford citation for the expression, described as colloquial and dialectal, is from Newton Forst, an 1832 seafaring novel by Frederick Marryat: “[He] took the lease of a house in a betwixt and between fashionable street.”

We’ll end with an earlier example that we found in The Children of Thespis (1786), a satirical poem by Anthony Pasquin (pseudonym of the English writer John Williams):

So beckon’d by Hope, yet by Hope so oft cheated
For ever contending, yet ever defeated;
Too eccentric to make a sound mathematician;
Too proud for attendance, too vain to beseech,
Too poor to be happy, too candid to preach:
Thus he swims in a strange indeterminate mean,
Neither hallow’d nor damn’d, but betwixt and between.

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