Q: I came across the following passage in the The New Yorker from a 1949 diary entry by Patricia Highsmith: “I came home in a silent, pent fury.” It made me wonder if “spent” and “pent” are related—a letting go and a holding in. Thoughts?
A: No, “spent,” the past tense and past participle of the verb “spend,” isn’t etymologically related to the adjective “pent” (more commonly “pent-up”), which originated as the past participle of the verb “pen” (to enclose or confine).
The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says “spend” is ultimately derived from the classical Latin verb expendere (to weigh out or pay out). In Old English, it was aspendan (to spend, spend entirely, squander) or more frequently forspendan (to spend utterly, spend away, exhaust with spending).
The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of an Anglo-Saxon version of “spend” is from the Old English Orosius, an anonymous ninth-century translation of a Latin history written in the fifth century. The citation is in the OED’s entry for the obsolete verb “aspend”:
“Hys gestréon béoð þus eall aspended” (“His wealth was thus all spent”). The manuscript is believed to have been written in the late 800s during the reign of King Alfred. The writer took many liberties in translating the Latin of Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII (History Against the Pagans in Seven Books), written in the early 400s by the Roman historian Paulus Orosius.
As for “pent,” Chambers describes it as a variant spelling of “penned,” the past participle of the verb “pen” (to confine someone or something). The verb, in turn, is derived from the noun “pen” (an enclosure), which is of uncertain origin but possibly Germanic.
The noun first appeared in Anglo-Saxon land charters, but it’s often hard to date the early examples because pen in Old English could mean an enclosure or a hill. The earliest OED example “positively identified” as an enclosure is from a 1227 copy of a 1061 land grant:
“Þonne adun onstream oð rean clif, þanon oð hæð pen suþewardne on þone holan stoc” (“then downstream to the cliff, thence to the heath pen and southward to the hollow place”). From Pre-Conquest Charter-Bounds of Devon and Cornwall (1994), by Della Hooke.
The verb “pen” apparently existed in Old English as pennian, but only a negative version has survived in writing, onpennian (to “open,” which etymologically is to un-pen).
The OED’s earliest onpennian example, which we’ve expanded, is from Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s late ninth-century translation of Liber Regulae Pastoralis, a sixth-century Latin treatise by Pope Gregory. The past participle onpennad is used here:
“Ðæt wæter, ðonne hit bið gepynd, hit miclað & uppað & fundað wið ðæs ðe hit ær from com, ðonne hit flowan ne mot ðider hit wolde. Ac gif sio pynding wierð onpennad, oððe sio wering wirð tobrocen, ðonne toflewð hit eall” (“The water, when it is dammed up and cannot flow where it wants, grows and rises and tries to go where it originally intended. But if the dam is opened, or the weir bursts, it all runs off”).
The dictionary’s first written citation for “pen” used as a verb meaning “to enclose, shut in, confine, or trap (a person or thing)” is in Middle English, from a sermon written sometime before 1200:
“Þe pit tineð his muð ouer þe man þe lið on fule synnen … gif ure ani is þus forswolgen and þus penned, clupe we to ure louerd ihesu crist” (“The pit closes its mouth over the man who lies down on foul sins … and if any of us are thus swallowed and penned, let us call upon Our Lord Jesus Christ”). From Old English Homilies of the Twelfth Century (1873), edited by Richard Morris.
The OED’s earliest example for “pent” used as an adjective in the sense of “penned” is from a pseudo-Chaucerian text: “He nas nat alway in cloystre ypent” (“He was not always pent in a cloister”). From the Plowman’s Prologue, added to a 1542 edition of Chaucer’s works.
Finally, the dictionary’s first example for “pent-up” appeared a dozen years later: “Yea as a capon longe pent vp in the caue [cave] / Exiled haue I bene miserably.” From The Resurreccion of the Masse (1554), a collection of religious poems by Hughe Hilarie, thought by some scholars to be a pseudonym for John Bale, an English dramatist and Protestant polemicist.