The Grammarphobia Blog

Foreboding or forbidding?

Q: I’ve noticed an uptick in the adjectival use of “foreboding.” It’s often used mistakenly for “forbidding” in describing challenging weather, terrain, etc. It’s also used for something that’s merely spooky, not a presentiment of evil.

A: Standard dictionaries agree with you that the adjective “foreboding” suggests a sense of impending misfortune while “forbidding” used adjectivally means unfriendly, unpleasant, or threatening.

Oxford Dictionaries Online, for example, defines “foreboding” as “implying or seeming to imply that something bad is going to happen,” and it gives this example: “when the Doctor spoke, his voice was dark and foreboding.”

Oxford defines “forbidding” as “unfriendly or threatening in appearance,” and it includes this example: “a grim and forbidding building.”

Most of the recent examples we’ve seen in the news media use the two words in the standard way. Here are a couple of sightings:

“It’s a question asked in a foreboding tone when markets behave a certain way: ‘What does the bond market know that the stock market doesn’t?’ ” (CNBC, March 14, 2018).

“From the outside, the forbidding concrete walls and narrow slit windows of the Pettis County Jail make it look like a fortress was planted smack dab in the middle of the historical downtown area for Sedalia, Mo.” (Washington Post, March 14, 2019).

But as you’ve noticed, “foreboding” is sometimes used in the sense of “forbidding,” as in these online examples:

“Others found a foreboding climate in the winter weather here” (from a Jan. 27, 2019, article on about Vietnamese refugees).

“A species of archaea that lives in such foreboding places as volcanic craters, deep-sea hydrothermal vents, and hot springs” (Natural History, March 2019).

When “foreboding” is used to mean spooky, it’s often difficult to tell whether the usage is ominous (suggesting impending doom) or just menacing (simply threatening).

Take this example: “Resident Evil was always a franchise that leaned heavily on tension—threatening players with a foreboding atmosphere, lurking enemies and limited resources” (from a Dec. 4, 2018, review on CNET of the video game Resident Evil 2).

Is the atmosphere ominous or dangerous? Foreboding or forbidding? We’ll let the reviewer have the last word.

As for the etymology here, the adjective “foreboding” ultimately comes from boda, the Old English noun for a herald or messenger, and bodian, an Old English verb meaning to announce, announce beforehand, or foretell, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The earliest OED example for the noun is from King Ælfred’s translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ, a sixth-century Latin treatise by the Roman philosopher Boethius: “Þu þe eart boda and forrynel ðæs soþan leohter” (“You who are the herald and forerunner of the true light”).

The verb showed up in writing around the same time in Elene, the longest of the four signed works by the Old English poet Cynewulf. The OED dates the poem, based on the story of St. Helena and the Holy Cross, at sometime before 900. This is the quotation:

“Gode þancode, sigora dryhtne, þæs þe hio soð gecneow ondweardlice þæt wæs oft bodod feor ær beforan fram fruman worulde” (“She thanked God, the Lord of Triumph, from whom she knew the truth, which was often foretold since far before the beginning of the world”).

Although the Old English verb could mean to announce something or announce it beforehand, an Anglo-Saxon writer might add the prefix fore- to the verb to emphasize its beforeness, making clear that forebodian meant to foretell, not just to tell.

The online Boswell and Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary has this Old English excerpt from Psalm 71:15: “Múþ mín fórebodaþ rihtwísnysse ðine” (“My mouth foretells thy righteousness”). The citation comes from Psalterium Davidis, Latino-Saxonicum Vetus, psalms in Old English and Latin, collected by the English antiquarian Henry Spelman (1562-1641). The psalms were edited and published by his son John in 1640.

The earliest OED example for the adjective “foreboding” used to mean ominous is from The Depositions and Examinations of Mr. Edmund Everard (1679): “By a fore-boding guilt they knew perfectly … I had grounds enough wherewith to accuse them.” Everard was an informer in a concocted anti-Catholic conspiracy in 17th-century Britain known as the Popish Plot.

The other adjective, “forbidding,” ultimately comes from the Old English verb forbéodan—a compound of the prefix for- (against) and the verb béodan (to command). Here’s an expanded OED example from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of Old English writing from the 800s to the 1100s:

“þa wiðcweð se arcebiscop and cwæð þet se papa hit him forboden hæfde” (“The Archbishop refused and said that the Pope had forbidden it”). The citation refers to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s refusal to consecrate the Abbot of Abingdon as Bishop of London.

And here’s the dictionary’s first example for the adjective “forbidding” in its unfriendly, unpleasant, or threatening sense: “That awful Cast of the Eye and forbidding Frown” (from the Spectator, Feb. 14, 1712).

Finally, a recent use of “foreboding” that could mean either ominous or threatening: “On Sunday afternoon, sirens wailed and cellphones erupted with about 12 minutes of notice that a funnel cloud had dropped from a foreboding Alabama sky and was bound for Beauregard” (New York Times, March 5, 2019).

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