How words disappear, or go into hiding
- Credit: Getty Images
PETER TRUDGILL on how some 'antiquated' words drop out of use
In George Borrow's 1843 book The Bible in Spain, he reports one of his interlocutors, a servant, as saying to him: 'Though I have been turned out of so many families, I was never turned out of that one; and though I left it thrice, it was of my own free will.'
Most readers of this column will be familiar with the word thrice. It occurs, for instance, in the King James Bible: 'Before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice.' At earlier periods of history, all English speakers would have used this word quite naturally as part of their normal everyday speech.
Nowadays, on the other hand, it is safe to say that most of us never use it. As early as 200 years ago, it had already become somewhat archaic. The most recent citation of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from as long ago as 1859, from the decidedly uncolloquial verse of Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose Idylls of a King contains the line '…with some surprise and thrice as much disdain'. George Borrow, too, wrote in what has been called a 'pre-Victorian' style.
What we would say in modern English instead of thrice, of course, is three times. This change from thrice to three times appears to be part of a pattern.
You may also want to watch:
The forms whence and thence have similarly for the most part disappeared from the language, and been replaced by from where and from there: we no longer ask 'Whence have you come?' but 'Where have you come from?'. Similarly, whither, hither and thither have been replaced by to where, to here and to there. 'Whither walkest thou?' is now expressed as 'Where are you walking to?'
Linguistic analysts would say that what is happening here is that synthetic structures are being replaced by analytic structures.
- 1 Betty Boothroyd delivers scathing assessment of Boris Johnson's government
- 2 Boris Johnson 'plans to resign' in six months because he can't live on £150k salary
- 3 Government told to publish impact assessments for Boris Johnson's 'Narnia' deal with EU
- 4 House of Lords defies No 10 and votes to heavily defeat Boris Johnson's Brexit bill
- 5 Theresa May brands Michael Gove's no-deal Brexit statement 'utter rubbish'
- 6 ERG MP says Boris Johnson should consider cutting ties with Church of England following Brexit row
- 7 Brexiteer admits 'Australia-style deal' term designed to 'pull wool over voters' eyes'
- 8 Remainers blamed for Boris Johnson's inability to secure Brexit deal
- 9 Labour MP calls Dan Wootton a 'complete and utter nutcase' following Covid-19 herd immunity comment
- 10 Diane Abbott accuses Keir Starmer of having 'other motives' while shadow Brexit secretary
To get an angle on what this means, we can consider the fact that the word seldom and the two-word phrase not often mean more or less exactly the same thing. 'I seldom go' and 'I don't often go' are no different from one another in terms of meaning in any significant way. The negative element of the meaning, and the frequency element of the meaning, are synthesised into the single word seldom while, in not often the two elements have been analysed out and expressed separately.
The same thing is true of neither and not either, as in 'I like neither of them' and 'I do not like either of them'.
Again, the two different elements of meaning are combined in the single form of neither but are separated out in not either.
For many speakers of modern English, the analytical two-word forms feel more natural, and certainly less formal, than their synthetic equivalents.
If I am right, seldom is now employed less often – or more seldom! – than not often. And most people are probably more likely to say 'I don't like either of them' rather than 'I like neither of them'.
This is part of a very long-running trend in the evolution of the English language in which more analytical structures are winning out over synthetic forms.
And the process continues: plenty of younger people nowadays seem to be quite happy to say two times rather than twice.
To older people this can sound rather childish, but doubtless our own usage of three times would have sounded childish to older speakers in the 18th century when thrice was beginning to fall out of use. It would be interesting to see how long it takes before the surviving form once turns into the equivalent of French une fois or Norwegian en gang, literally 'one time'.
Possessive pronouns like mine, yours and ours also appear to be under threat today from potential analytical replacements: younger people are increasingly saying 'That's my one!' rather than 'That's mine!'. This is my impression anyway – maybe your one is different.
Become a Supporter
The New European is proud of its journalism and we hope you are proud of it too. We believe our voice is important - both in representing the pro-EU perspective and also to help rebalance the right wing extremes of much of the UK national press. If you value what we are doing, you can help us by making a contribution to the cost of our journalism.