[Note: In observance of Memorial Day, we are reprinting this post, originally published on Jan. 9, 2015.]
Q: Watching a recent rebroadcast of “The Civil War” on PBS, I was struck by this sentence in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “We are met on a great battle-field of that war.” Is “we are met” just a poetic usage? Or is something else going on?
A: “We are met” is a present-perfect construction, parallel to “we have met.” The usage dates back to the Middle Ages, but by Lincoln’s time it was considered archaic and poetic.
You can still hear it today, though the usage sounds unusual to modern ears because it combines “met” (the past participle of “meet”) with a form of “be” as the auxiliary verb instead of the usual “have.”
So, for instance, a speaker uses “we are met to honor him” in place of “we have met to honor him”—or, to use the simple present tense, “we meet to honor him.”
The poetic “we are met” gives the message a solemnity and gravity it wouldn’t otherwise convey.
Here “met” is used in the sense of “assembled” or “gathered” or “brought together.” And the auxiliary “be” is possible only when this sense of “met” is used intransitively—that is, without a direct object.
In its entry for “meet,” the Oxford English Dictionary notes that “in intransitive use the perfect tenses were freq. formed with the auxiliary be in Middle English and early modern English; subsequently this became archaic and poetic.”
The OED has citations from the 14th century onward, including this Middle English example from Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem “The Complaint of Mars” (circa 1385): “The grete joye that was betwix hem two, / When they be mette.”
This one is from Thomas Starkey’s A Dialogue Between Pole and Lupset, written sometime before 1538: “Seying that we be now here mete … accordyng to our promys.”
And here’s a poetic 19th-century use from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel The Virginians (1859): “The two gentlemen, with a few more friends, were met round General Lambert’s supper-table.”
Today, we’re more likely to encounter this usage on solemn occasions, as when people gather for religious worship or funeral eulogies.
Lincoln isn’t the only American politician to use “we are met” in elevated oratory. In 1965, in a speech before Congress in support of equal voting rights, President Lyndon B. Johnson said:
“There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans—we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.”
A somewhat similar use of “met” with the “be” auxiliary is also antiquated today. This is the expression “to be well met,” first recorded in the 15th century and meaning to be welcome or well received.
This is the source of the old expression “hail fellow well met,” which evolved in the late 16th century from the slightly earlier phrase “hail, fellow!”
“Hail, fellow!” was a friendly greeting of the 1500s that was also used adjectivally, the OED says, to mean “on such terms, or using such freedom with another, as to accost him with ‘hail, fellow!’ ”
We’ll quote 19th-century examples of the shorter as well as the longer adjectival phrases, courtesy of the OED:
“He crossed the room to her … with something of a hail-fellow bearing.” (From Thomas Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, 1886.)
“He was popular … though not in any hail-fellow-well-met kind of way.” (From H. Rider Haggard’s novel Colonel Quaritch, V.C., 1888.)
We’ll close with a more contemporary example we found in a letter to the editor of the Bergen (N.J.) Record in 2012:
“The most exciting thing about the Republican National Convention was the hurricane. … Where is the enthusiasm, the fire they need to capture the voters? Where is the ‘Hail fellow, well met’? This convention was a snore fest.”