Q: Colson Whitehead uses the adjective “bent” in this passage from Harlem Shuffle, his latest novel: “Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.” One can read many meanings into “bent” and I began wondering about its derivation and use over time. What can you tell us?
A: Yes, the adjective “bent” has a variety of meanings. You might say it bends in all directions, every way but straight. A piece of wire can be bent, an angry person can be bent out of shape, a speculator can be bent on making a killing in options, someone on a bender can be bent, and a crook, as well as his illicit gains, can be bent.
Appropriately, the adjective “bent” has a winding history, dating from the Middle English of the 14th century when it was derived from the verb “bend.” And as we’ve written in a 2012 post, “bend” itself has a romantic origin, evoking the graceful curve of a medieval archer’s bow.
But the story begins even farther into the past, when “bend,” both noun and verb, had menacing meanings. In Old English, a “bend” was originally a fetter or a shackle—anything used to restrain or tie someone up—and to “bend” was to fetter them.
The noun was first recorded (as bęnd) around the year 890, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Here’s the OED’s earliest example, which uses the Anglo-Saxon plural benda:
“Þa benda sumes gehæftes” (“the ties were loosed”). From An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, an Old English translation from Bede’s Latin chronicle of the 700s.
The noun was used in that sense until it was eventually superseded by “band” and “bond,” two competing nouns adopted later from Old Norse in the 12th and 13th centuries. “Band” and “bond” were originally variants of each other and meant the same thing as “bend,” the OED says: “a shackle, chain, fetter, manacle,” and so on.
That sense of “bend” is now obsolete except in nautical usage (it means a knot), but for a time during the Middle English period all three nouns—“bend,” “band,” and “bond”—were used interchangeably in that early sense of something for restraining a person.
Not surprisingly, all those words have been traced to the same prehistoric Indo-European source. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says a verb stem reconstructed as bhendh- (to bind) is the ultimate origin, not only of “bend,” “band,” and “bond” but also of “bind,” “bandana,” and “ribbon.”
Meanwhile, the verb “bend” had come into the language soon after the noun. In Old English, it meant “to fasten or constrain with a ‘bend’ or bond; to confine, fetter,” the OED says.
When first recorded around 1000 (as bęndan), it specifically meant “to constrain or bring into tension by a string,” as an archer would draw a bow. The dictionary’s earliest use in writing is quoted from an illuminated manuscript, The Paris Psalter: “He bende his bogan, se is nu gearo to sceotanne” (“He bent his bow, that is now ready to shoot”).
Later on, in the first half of the 14th century, the verb began to take on its modern meanings. That early sense, “to constrain a bow with the string,” became associated “with the curved shape into which the bow is brought,” the dictionary says, and the verb acquired a new meaning—to arch or curve.
Oxford’s earliest citation for that sense of the verb is from an anonymous poem that uses a participle. The poet’s beloved is described as having eyebrows that arch: “Heo haþ browes bend an heh” (“She hath brows bent on high”). From “The Fair Maid of Ribblesdale,” written sometime before 1350 and collected in The Harley Lyrics, edited by George Leslie Brook in 1968.
[A historical aside, from The Middle English Ideal of Personal Beauty (1916), by Walter Clyde Curry: “The word which seems to express most forcibly and clearly for Middle English poets their ideal of beautiful eyebrows, is the adjective ‘bent.’ It describes the eyebrows arched or curved in the form of a strung bow.”]
Because of its association with arches and archery, the verb “bend” developed two different groups of meanings in the 14th through 16th centuries, Oxford explains: (1) “to bow or curve, deflect, inflect, bow oneself, stoop, submit, yield”; and (2) “to direct or level a weapon, to aim, bring to bear, bring one’s force or energies to bear.”
And those senses in turn blended into a third set of meanings, recorded from the early 15th century onward: “to direct or turn one’s steps, oneself, one’s mind, eyes, ears, in any specified direction.” All this, from a verb that once meant to tie somebody up!
Meanwhile, as the verb “bend” was taking on all those meanings, its participle “bent” emerged as an adjective with corresponding senses: arched, curved, bowed, stooped, directed, determined, and so on. Here are some of those adjectival meanings, along with dates of the first OED sightings:
Braced for action, ready to spring, leveled or aimed like a weapon (c. 1330); forced into a curve, curved, crooked (c. 1374); arched (1380, when “bent brows” meant sharply curved eyebrows); determined or resolute (1548); furrowed (1647, when a “bent brow” was a frowning or wrinkled forehead); bound for or directed at (1697, as in “homeward bent travelers”).
Now we arrive at the figurative slang uses of “bent” that came along in the 19th century. The most prolific of these have to do with being drunk or stoned, and the OED’s earliest example, from American fiction, describes an inebriated doctor:
“He was seldom downright drunk; but was often … confoundedly bent.” From Asa Greene’s 1833 satire of medical quackery, The Life and Adventures of Dr. Dodimus Duckworth, A.N.Q.
This may have come into American use from Scots dialect, Jonathan E. Lighter suggests in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. In mid-18th-century Scots slang, as recorded in poetry, to “bend” was to drink hard.
Scots dialect may also have influenced the use of the noun “bender” for a drunken binge, which dates back to the early 1840s in American writing. The earliest example we’ve found is in a Vermont newspaper’s account of a man arrested after drunkenly (and violently) defending the memory of Ethan Allen:
“When brought before the Recorder in the morning, he had forgotten all about old Ethan, said he had been on a bit of a bender, and was let off by paying for his lodging at Harper’s Hotel.” (The Spirit of the Age, Woodstock, Dec. 10, 1841.)
In the 20th century, the drinking sense of “bent” was applied more widely (like the term “wasted”) to narcotics use. This is the OED’s earliest example: “He was bent, barely able, it seemed, to keep his head up” (Nathan C. Heard’s novel Howard Street, 1968).
And around that same time, according to Random House, the expression “bent out of shape” could mean drunk, high on drugs (especially on LSD), or angry, while the phrase “get bent” could mean either “get stoned” or “go to hell!”
Another sense of “bent,” penniless (that is, almost “broke”), came along in the early 20th century. The first known example is from a feature story in The Evening Sun, New York, fall 1909:
“ ‘What’s the matter, old man?’ asked a man near him. ‘Broke?’ ‘Not yet, friend,’ replied the sorrowful one, ‘but I’m—well, bent.’ ” From an article by Quincy Sharpe Mills cited in a book about him, One Who Gave His Life (1923), by James Luby.
The use of “bent” that you spotted in Colson Whitehead’s novel—corrupt or “crooked”—also appeared in the early 20th century. The OED’s first example, which we’ve expanded here, is from a glossary of underworld terms:
“BENT, Adjective. General usage. Crooked; larcenous. See ‘TWISTED.’ Example: ‘His kisser shows that he’s bent.’ ” From A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang (1914), by Louis E. Jackson with C. R. Hellyer, a police detective in Portland, OR.
In an associated usage, the adjective also came to mean illegal or stolen, as in “bent car” or “bent goods” (dating from 1930 in the OED). The dictionary also has these senses of “bent”: ruined or out of order (1930); eccentric or insane (both 1942); homosexual (1959); and altered in pitch or tone (1950, used in music to describe a sliding or “blue” note).
Standard dictionaries describe the criminal sense of “bent” as chiefly British, but slang dictionaries and the OED, an etymological dictionary, don’t make that distinction. Colson Whitehead, an American writer, set Harlem Shuffle in the New York of the early 1960s.
In case you’re interested, we wrote in 2008 about the expression “hell-bent for leather.” And we wrote a post a few years later about verbs, like “bend,” that have two possible endings for the past tense and past participle: either “-d” or “-t.” Today, the past tense “bended” survives only in the expression “on bended knee.”