The Grammarphobia Blog

A wretched creature

Q: A friend gave me a copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Almost from the start, the creature is referred to as “the wretch.” An online search indicates that some variation of “wretch” appears 64 times in a novel of only 200 pages—more often than “monster” (33) or “dæmon” (20). But “wretch” seems to have lost its punch in our times.

A: In modern English, “wretch” principally means someone who’s extremely unfortunate, an object of pity. But less commonly it also means one who’s despicable, an object of loathing.

Both senses of the word have been around for more than a thousand years, and nearly all standard dictionaries still accept both. But the bad-guy sense has slipped to second place, and today some British dictionaries label it “literary” or “humorous” or “informal” (as in “those ungrateful wretches!”).

In Mary Shelley’s time, both meanings of “wretch” were common and she uses them both in her novel. Sometimes she calls Frankenstein’s creature a “wretch” because he’s suffering in misery and loneliness, and the reader is supposed to feel sorry for him. But at other times, as when he murders a child, the “wretch” is loathsome, a “filthy dæmon” that must be destroyed.

The two meanings developed from an earlier and now obsolete sense of “wretch”—an outcast. This use dates back to Beowulf, which may have been written as early as 725. Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s citation from the poem:

“Ða wæs winter scacen, fæger foldan bearm; fundode wrecca, gist of geardum” (“Then winter was gone, earth’s lap grew lovely, longing woke in the cooped-up exile for a voyage home”). We’ve used Seamus Heaney’s translation, which renders the Old English word for “wretch” (wrecca) as “exile.”

The OED cites another Old English use: “Ða lioð þe ic wrecca geo lustbærlice song ic sceal nu heofiende singan” (“The songs that I, an outcast, once sang joyfully I must now sing grieving”). From King Ælfred’s translation, circa 888, of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiæ.

The OED defines that original use of “wretch,” which has now died away, as “one driven out of or away from his native country; a banished person; an exile.”

It was from that sense that the two modern meanings developed in Old English. The first to come along, according to OED citations, was the sense of a terrible person. This is the earliest known example in writing:

“Hyre se feond oncwæð, wræcca wærleas, wordum mælde” (“To her the fiend answered, faithless wretch, and spoke his words”). From Juliana, an account of the martyrdom of St. Juliana of Nicomedia, presumed written by the poet Cynewulf between 970 and 990. The “wretch” in the passage is the demon Belial.

The OED says “wretch” in that sense means “a vile, sorry, or despicable person; one of opprobrious or reprehensible character; a mean or contemptible creature.”

The other modern sense, in which a “wretch” is miserably unhappy or unfortunate, was first recorded circa 1000, Oxford says.

This is the dictionary’s earliest citation: “Ne mæg mon æfre þy eð ænne wræccan his cræftes beniman” (“No one can ever rob a wretch of his skills more easily”). From the Metres of Boethius, a later rendering of De Consolatione Philosophiæ.

That sense of the word, still the most common in standard English, is defined in the OED as “one who is sunk in deep distress, sorrow, misfortune, or poverty; a miserable, unhappy, or unfortunate person; a poor or hapless being.” (In an offshoot of that usage, the OED says, “wretch” is sometimes used playfully, a meaning that emerged in the 15th century.)

A final note about the history of “wretch.” It can be traced to an ancient Indo-European word stem that linguists have reconstructed as wreg-, meaning to push, drive, or track down. (This root wreg, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, is also the source of our words “wreck,” “wrack,” and “wreak,” a verb that originally meant to avenge, punish, or drive away.)

After wreg– entered prehistoric Germanic, it became a noun, wrakjon, which American Heritage says meant both “pursuer” and “one pursued.” Later, in the era of writing, this old noun took different directions in different Germanic languages.

What developed into our word “wretch” became recke in German, which means a warrior or hero. As the OED comments, “The contrast in the development of the meaning in English and German is remarkable.”

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