English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

The went not taken

Q: In Little Women, the girls chide their friend Teddy for flirting, to which he replies that sensible girls “won’t let me send them ‘flowers and things,’ so what can I do? my feelings must have a went.” I haven’t seen “went” used as a noun before. Have you come across it?

A: The “went” that Teddy uses is an antiquated noun for a path or road. The word dates from the Middle Ages and wasn’t an everyday usage by the time Louisa May Alcott published Little Women in 1868. A more modern character might say, “My feelings must have an outlet.”

We’ve found only one current standard dictionary that still recognizes this use of “went.” Merriam-Webster Unabridged, an American dictionary, labels it a British noun for “a traveled way,” synonymous with “road, lane, alley, passage.”

However, we don’t know of any standard British dictionary that now includes the term. And the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says it’s obsolete except in dialect.

The OED defines a “went” as “a course, path, way, or passage,” and says the noun is related to the verb “wend.” Oxford’s earliest example for the noun, which we’ve expanded, is from a Middle English translation of Genesis:

“He knowned one ilc ſterre name, / He ſettes in ðe firmament, / Al abuten ðis walkne went” (“He alone knoweth the name of each star, / He sets in the firmament, / All across this vaulted way”). The passage, from around 1250, is cited in The Middle English Genesis and Exodus, edited by Olof Sigfrid Arngart (1968).

In the following century, Chaucer used the noun in a more literal way: “Hyt forthe went Dovne by a floury grene went Ful thikke of gras” (“It forth wended down by a flowery green path full thick with grass”). From The Book of the Duchesse, circa 1369. (Note that the first “went” in the Middle English passage means “wended” and the second means “path.” More on that later.)

Oxford notes that the noun “went” in this sense was sometimes used in reference to a crossroad. The dictionary cites 18th- and 19th-century examples in which “went,” used with a number, meant a point where several roads converged, as in a “three-went way” or a “four-went way.”

Though we’ve found some 20th-century examples of the noun “went,” it’s generally used historically—that is, in reference to times past—or as a curiosity. By Louisa May Alcott’s time it wasn’t in common use.

The word doesn’t appear in the dictionaries of John Kersey (1708), Nathan Bailey (1731), Samuel Johnson (1755), William Kenrick (1773), Thomas Sheridan (1780), Noah Webster (1806, 1828), or Joseph E. Worcester (1860).

As we mentioned, there’s a connection between the noun “went” and the quaint old verb “wend” (to turn, change direction, or go).

The story begins with “wend,” a word that may date as far back as the 700s in early Old English writing. Similar words are known in other Germanic languages, and the ultimate source, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, is a prehistoric Proto-Germanic verb that’s been reconstructed as wandjanan (to turn or twist).

As the OED explains, “The core sense of the Germanic base is evidently ‘to turn.’ ” However, in Old English the verb “wend” acquired an additional meaning not known in its Germanic cousins: “to go.” This development, the dictionary suggests, came about “probably via a sense ‘to turn in a particular direction in order to go.’ ”

Significantly, a past-tense form of “wend” was “went,” which isn’t an unusual pattern in English. The “-d” ending of the infinitive became “-t” in the past tense, as in pairs like “send/sent,” “bend/bent,” “lend/lent,” and “spend/spent.”

Meanwhile, the unrelated verb “go” had its own past tense in Old English: eode (sometimes spelled yode). But beginning in the 1400s that old past tense began to slip away and was gradually replaced by “went.” This was only natural, since “went” was already a familiar past tense to English speakers, who often used “wend” and “go” for the same thing.

Consequently, “wend” acquired a new past tense all its own: “wended.” The result, the OED says, was that in many writings of the 15th century and a bit later “it is often unclear whether a particular instance of went should be interpreted as the past tense of wend … or of go.”

The meaning of “wend” gradually changed too. It lost its more straightforward “go” senses (to move, proceed, etc.), which were transferred to “go.” But it kept the twisting and turning senses. Today “wend” and its modern past tense “wended,” Oxford says, “often imply an indirect or meandering course” as well as denoting “unhurried movement.”

And as for that old noun “went,” it has wended its way into history.

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