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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

A tale of two plights

Q: The Merriam-Webster entry for “plight” lists “to put or give in pledge” and “a solemnly given pledge” before the only definition I’m familiar with, “an unfortunate, difficult, or precarious situation.” Where do the first two come from?

A: The word “plight” is now usually a noun for an unfortunate condition, but some dictionaries include it as a rare noun for a pledge and a rare verb meaning to pledge (as in to “plight one’s troth”).

As it turns out, the pledging and the unfortunate senses aren’t related etymologically, though they may be connected semantically. In other words, the two senses have different ancestors, but an ancestor of one may have influenced the meaning of another.

So why does Merriam-Webster list those two obscure senses before the usual meaning of “plight” today? Here’s the answer, from the dictionary’s explanatory notes:

“The order of senses within an entry is historical: the sense known to have been first used in English is entered first. This is not to be taken to mean, however, that each sense of a multisense word developed from the immediately preceding sense. It is altogether possible that sense 1 of a word has given rise to sense 2 and sense 2 to sense 3, but frequently sense 2 and sense 3 may have arisen independently of one another from sense 1.”

When “plight” first appeared in Old English, it was both a noun (pliht) with the sense of “peril, danger, or risk” and a verb (plihtan) meaning “to endanger or compromise (life, honour, etc.),” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Those two senses are now obsolete, but they led to the pledging meaning and may have influenced the unfortunate sense that’s common these days.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says the Old English terms are derived from two prehistoric roots that have been reconstructed by linguists—the Germanic plegan (responsible for) and the Proto-Indo-European dlegh- (engage oneself). The notion here may be one of taking responsibility for or engaging in something dangerous.

The first OED citation for the noun, which uses the plural plihtas, is from the Vespasian Psalter, an eighth-century illuminated manuscript written in Latin and Old English:

“Circumdederunt me dolores mortis et pericula inferni inuenerunt me: ymbsaldun mec sar deðes & plihtas helle gemoettun mec” (“The pains of death surrounded me, and the plights [dangers] of hell beset me”). Psalms 114:3; the passage is Psalms 116:3 in later English translations.

The earliest Oxford example for the verb is from a law enacted in 1008 by Æðelred II, King of the Anglo-Saxons from 978 to 1016, a period of intense conflict with the Danes that led him to flee briefly to Normandy:

“Gyf hwa butan leafe of fyrde gewende, þe se cyning sylf on sy, plihte him sylfum & ealre his are” (“If anyone deserts an army that is under the command of the king himself, it shall plight [endanger] his life and all his honor”).

Æðelred, now usually called Æthelred the Unready (more accurately, the Ill-Advised), was ousted for a few months by King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark. The nickname, which appeared dozens of years after Æðelred died, was a play on his name, from æðele (noble) and ræd (counsel or advice) in Old English.

In early Middle English, the OED says, the verb “plight” took on the sense of “to put (something) under risk of forfeiture; to give in pledge; to pledge or engage (one’s troth, faith, oath, promise, etc.).”

The dictionary’s earliest citation uses iplicht (“plighted”) in the marital sense: “folliche iplicht trouðe” (“a foolishly plighted troth”). From the  Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women written sometime before 1200.

The dictionary’s first citation for the noun used to mean a pledge is from an anonymous Middle English translation of the account in Genesis of the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech, the King of Gerar:

“He bad him maken siker pligt / Of luue and trewðe in frendes rigt” (“He bade him make a sure plight [pledge] of love and truth in friendship”). From The Middle English Genesis and Exodus (1968), edited by Olof Sigfrid Arngart.

Although the pledge sense of “plight” is rare now, it does show up once in a while. An article published March 18, 2021, in The Atlantic, for example, refers to Prince Harry and his marriage to Meghan Markle this way: “He had plighted his troth to this unexpected and very beautiful woman.”

As for today’s usual sense of “plight” (an unfortunate condition), Middle English borrowed the usage around the beginning of the 14th century from Anglo-Norman French, where plitplistpleit, etc., meant a situation, a condition, or a state.

The French term ultimately comes from the Latin plicare (to fold) and the Proto-Indo-European root plek- (to plait), according to American Heritage’s Indo-European dictionary. (“Plait” can mean “pleat,” “weave,” or “braid.”)

So how did an ancient term for pleating, weaving, braiding, or folding come to mean an unfortunate condition in English? As we wrote in 2016, terms common to sewing, weaving, and textiles are often used metaphorically. To borrow a cliché of book reviewing, English is a richly woven tapestry.

When the noun “plight” first appeared in English in this new sense, it simply meant a neutral condition, as it had meant in French. However, the English term was often modified by a negative adjective, as in the earliest OED citation:

“Yt was in a sori pleyt, / Reuliche toyled to and fro” (“It [the body] was in a sorry plight, / Pitifully pulled to and fro”). From Þe Desputisoun Bitwen þe Bodi and þe Soule (“The Debate Between the Body and the Soul”), an anonymous poem written around 1300.

As the OED explains, the sense of “plight” as a neutral condition appears “in early use often with modifying word, as evilsorrywoeful, but in modern usage almost always having negative connotations even without modifier.”

The dictionary’s latest example of the noun uses it negatively without a modifier: “Paralyzed, unable to speak, losing the ability to swallow and yet totally aware of her plight” (The New York Times, Aug. 3, 2003).

How did “plight” evolve from a neutral to a negative condition? The OED suggests that the negative sense may have arisen because the neutral Middle English noun was “associated semantically” with the etymologically unrelated Old English term for danger.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Usage Word origin Writing

Why ‘it’s’ means ‘it is’ or ‘it has’

Q: I can’t stand the use of “it’s” for “it has” in writing. When I see “it’s,” I read “it is” and then have to translate this to “it has.” Am I too picky?

A: There’s nothing wrong with using “it’s” as the contraction of “it is” or “it has,” whether in writing or in speech. One can easily tell from the context which sense is meant, and both uses are long established in standard English.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, for example, says “it’s” has two meanings: “1. Contraction of it is. 2. Contraction of it has.” And Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.) says “its is the possessive form of it (The cat licked its paws) and it’s is the shortened form of it is (It’s raining again) or it has (It’s come).”

In fact, “it’s” has been a contraction of both “it is” and “it has” for hundreds of years, though “it’s” was once the usual form of the possessive adjective and “ ’tis” was the usual contraction of “it is.” Confusing, ’tisn’t it? Here’s the story.

In Old English (roughly 450 to 1150) and Middle English (about 1150 to 1450), the usual nominative or subject form of “it” was hithyt, etc. The usual genitive or possessive form (“its” or “of it”) was hishys, etc. The nominative it was seen only occasionally in Old English, more often in Middle English.

Here’s an early example of the nominative hit in Beowulf, an epic poem that may have been written as early as 725: “hit wearð ealgearo, healærna mæst” (“it stood there ready, the noblest of halls”).

And here’s an example of the genitive his in an Anglo-Saxon herbal remedy: “Gedrinc his þonne on niht nistig þreo full fulle” (“Drink of it, after a night of fasting, three full cups”). From the Old English Herbarium, a 12th-century manuscript at the British Library (Cotton Vitellius C. iii).

(By the way, “he” was he in Old English, “she” was heo or hie, “his” was his or hys,  and “her” was hire.)

Both “its” and “it’s” first came into use as possessive adjectives in early Modern English, probably because the older neuter genitive his was being confused with the masculine possessive his.

(We’re using the term “possessive adjective” here to describe a dependent genitive like “her” or “their,” and “possessive pronoun” to describe an independent genitive like “hers” or “theirs.”)

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “its” as a possessive adjective is from a late 16th-century translation of a collection of Latin anecdotes for clerics: “There stands a bedde, its death to tell.” From Certain Selected Histories for Christian Recreations (1577), by Ralph Robinson.

And the first OED citation for the apostrophized “it’s” used as a possessive is from the definition of spontaneamente in an Italian-English dictionary: “willingly, naturally, without compulsion, of himselfe, of his free will, for it’s owne sake.” From A Worlde of Wordes (1611), by John Florio.

Of the two versions of the possessive adjective—with and without the apostrophe—“it’s” was apparently the predominant spelling throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. (In fact, “her’s,” “our’s,” “their’s,” and “your’s” were also possessives in early Modern English.)

The dictionary cites a half-dozen examples of the possessive “it’s,” including one from a Nov. 8, 1800, letter by Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra. We’ve expanded the citation, which describes the reaction of Austen’s neighbors, the Harwoods, on learning that their son Earle, a marine lieutenant, had accidentally shot himself in the thigh:

One most material comfort however they have; the assurance of it’s being really an accidental wound, which is not only positively declared by Earle himself, but is likewise testified by the particular direction of the bullet. Such a wound could not have been received in a duel.”

We’ll add this earlier one from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2, believed written in the late 1590s and first published in the 1623 Folio: “As milde and gentle as the Cradle‑babe, / Dying with mothers dugge betweene it’s lips.”

As Merriam-Webster explains, “the unapostrophized its was in competition with it’s from the beginning and began to rise to dominance in the mid 18th century.” M-W cites several language authorities to show how the usage evolved.

In A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762), Robert Lowth gave “its” as the possessive form of “it.” But in The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776), George Campbell gave “it’s.” In Reflections on the English Language (1770), Robert Baker preferred “it’s,” then switched to “its” in the 1779 edition. And in English Grammar (1794), Lindley Murray endorsed its.

As for the “it is” contractions, “ ’tis” appeared about a century before “it’s,” according to citations in the OED.

This is Oxford’s earliest example of “ ’tis” is written without an apostrophe (for the missing “i” in “it”): “Alas, tys pety yt schwld be þus” (“Alas, ’tis a pity it should be thus”). From Mankind, an anonymous morality play written around 1475.

The dictionary’s earliest example with an apostrophe is from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, first published in the 1623 Folio but believed to have been performed in 1606: “If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twer well, It were done quickly.”

Meanwhile, “it’s” had emerged as a competing contraction. This is Oxford’s first example:  “And ambition is a priuie [private] poison, It’s also a pestilens.” From Rewarde of Wickednesse, a 1574 poem by Richard Robinson.

At first, the competition of “ ’tis” and “it’s” was pretty one-sided. A comparison using Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, suggests that “ ’tis” was the usual contraction of “it is” from the mid-16th century to the mid-19th.

In fact, the early dominance of “ ’tis” was even greater than the comparison shows, since the Ngram results include the use of “it’s” as a possessive adjective as well as a contraction of “it has” and “it is.”

Language authorities in the late 18th and early 19th centuries indicated a preference for “ ’tis.” Campbell, for instance, complains in The Philosophy of Rhetoric about what he considers the misuse of “it’s, the genitive of the pronoun it, for ’tis, a contraction of it is.”

And both Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1775) and Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) include entries for “ ’tis” (but not “it’s”) as a contraction of “it is.”

Getting back to your complaint about the use of “it’s” as a contraction of “it has,” the earliest example we’ve seen for the usage is from the 1623 Folio of King Lear.

In addition to the contraction “it’s” for “it has,” Shakespeare used “it” twice by itself as a possessive: “the Hedge-Sparrow fed the Cuckoo so long, that it’s had it head bit off by it young.”

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Why you can ‘malign,’ but not ‘benign’

Q: “Malign” and “benign” look as if they should be antonyms with the same parts of speech. But “malign” is a verb and “malignant” the adjective, while “benign” is an adjective with no corresponding verb. Shouldn’t a tumor be “malignant” or “benignant”?  And why can’t you “benign” as well as “malign” someone?

A: Yes, “benign” and “malign” do behave differently, but not quite as differently as you think. A smile or a tumor can be “benign” or “benignant,” according to many standard dictionaries, though “benign” is a much more common adjective.

One big difference, as you point out, is that “malign” is a verb or an adjective while “benign” is only an adjective.  So why can someone malign a person’s character, but not benign it? We’ll have to go back to the Latin roots of the two words to answer.

“Malign” comes from the classical Latin malignus (wicked, mean), a compound of male (“badly”) and gignere (“to beget”), while “benign” comes from the classical Latin benignus (kindly, friendly, generous), a compound of bene (well) and gignere.

In post-classical Latin, the two adjectives inspired two verbs—malignare (to act or plot maliciously, to defame) and benignor or benignari (to rejoice or take delight in).  As you can see, the Latin verbs were not antonyms.

Here are examples for each that we’ve found in Saint Jerome’s Latin translation of the Old and New Testaments, completed in 405:

  • “leva manus tuas in superbias eorum in finem quanta malignatus est inimicus in sancto” (“Lift up your hands against their pride until the end; see how much the enemy has maligned the sanctuary”). From Psalms 74:3.
  • “nec est apud eam accipere personas neque differentias, sed quae iusta sunt facit omnibus iniustis ac malignis. et omnes benignantur in operibus eius” (“It is not with her [truth] to prefer persons or differences, but she does what is just to all, forsaking injustice and evil, and all rejoice in her works”). From 1 Esdra 4:39.

In the early 12th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, Old French adopted the Latin malignare as maligner (to plot, deceive, act wrongly). And in  the early 15th century, English borrowed the term from Anglo-Norman, where it meant to slander.

When the verb maligne appeared in Middle English, the OED says, it could mean either to act wickedly or to slander someone. The dictionary’s earliest citations for these senses are from two different works written around the same time by the English monk and poet John Lydgate:

  • “Ay þe more he was to hem benigne, / Þe more vngoodly ageyn hym þei malygne” (“Ay, the more he was to them benign, the more ungoodly [wrongly] against him they malign”). From Troyyes Book (circa 1420), Lydgate’s translation from the Latin of Historia Destructionis Troiae (1287), by Guido delle Colonne.
  • “For it were veyne, nature to malingne, / Though she of kynde be the Empresse, / Ayeyne hir lorde that made hir so maystresse” (“For it were a thoughtless trait of hers to malign, though she be properly the Empress, against the lord who made her his mistress”). We’ve expanded the citation from Lydgate’s religious poem Life of Our Lady (circa 1420-22).

But as far as we can tell, benignor or benignari, the post-classical Latin verb meaning to rejoice or take delight in, didn’t inspire a similar verb in Old French, Anglo-Norman, or Middle English.

So that’s why modern English doesn’t have a verb “benign” as the antonym of our verb “malign.” And English speakers apparently don’t feel the need for one.

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