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shameless pleading


Worse for wear.

Dear Word Detective: “Shent” is a word my family uses to describe a garment that is worn out, frayed at the edge, threadbare. I can find no reference for this word. Is it a made-up word or does it have some other root? My family is from Yorkshire (England), so there are many local words, often Norse-based. — Christopher Steward.

Thanks for a fascinating question. It also neatly rescued me from answering a question again that I had answered twelve years ago. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. Perhaps the person asking it simply wasn’t paying attention that day. Incidentally, did you know that there’s an internet abbreviation for that phrase, “NTTAWWT”? The phrase itself comes from an old Seinfeld episode.

Your family must use some pretty obscure words. Most of the dictionaries I consulted don’t even mention “shent.” (Yes, you may “look things up” in a dictionary, but I “consult” them. It’s a tax thing.) Anyway, the one dictionary that did come through with anything not uselessly cryptic was our old friend, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

According to the OED, “shent” is very much a word, an adjective meaning “disgraced, lost, ruined; stupefied.” The first print citation in the OED for the word, now considered archaic, is from around 1440, and the most recent is from around 1850 (“Till, starting up in wild bewilderment, I do become so shent That I go forth, lest folk misdoubt of it,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti).

That “ruined” meaning of “shent” would certainly seem to cover the “worn-out, threadbare” sense used by your family, but the history of the word proved to be even more interesting than the word itself. We’ve been talking about an adjective, but “shent” is (or was) also a noun, primarily in Scotland, meaning “disgrace.” According to the OED, this “shent” was actually a variant of “shend,”of the same vintage, meaning “disgrace or ruin.” That noun “shend” came from much older verb “to shend” (appearing around 825), which means, variously, “to disgrace or confuse,” “to blame or scold,” or “to destroy or spoil” (“My papers have been shended and rended and cast to the wind,” Arthur Conan Doyle, 1907). According to the OED, after the 15th century “shend” largely disappeared as a verb and was usually used only in its past participle form, which is (ta da) “shent.” So the adjective your family used may just have been that participle (not that it makes any real difference).

Meanwhile, back at the starting line for all this “shend/shent” business, it all began with the Old English “scendan,” which also produced the form “shond,” which, predictably, also meant “to disgrace or ruin.” Follow the trail even further back, into old Germanic, and you eventually hit the Old Germanic root word “skam,” which not only produced “shend/shent/shond,” but also our more modern and vastly more familiar English word “shame.” So the ultimate root of “shent” carried the general sense of “shame, disgrace or destruction.” There’s some indication that even further back was a root word meaning “to cover,” the logic being that a typical response to personal shame is to cover oneself.

The same family tree also produced our common English word “sham,” meaning “a hoax or trick,” which is thought to have actually originated as a Northern English variant of “shame,” although the logical connection has never been explained.

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