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 plit, plist, pleit, 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 evil, sorry, woeful, 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.