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Go / Went

With all thy going, get lost.

Dear Word Detective: I understand (unless you tell me otherwise) that the principal parts of the verb “to go” are really parts to two different words: “go” and “wend,” viz. “went,” the past tense of “to go,” being the pluperfect of “wend.” If that is so, what, originally was the simple past of “to go” and how did “went” sneak in there? And was (or is) “to wander” related to “wend” in some way? — David Hendon.

Whoa. Excuse me, for a minute there the room was spinning like a roulette wheel. Oddly enough, when it stopped, my mind (which resembles a small steel ball to an uncanny degree) settled on a famous line from Saki (pen name of Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916)) about the difficulty of retaining household staff: “The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go, she went.” I’m sure you’re all thinking, along about now, “My, what a clever man. I wish I had literary quotations leaping into my mind right when I need them.” Unfortunately, I originally remembered that line as involving a maid, not a cook, and consequently wasted about an hour looking for the source of a quotation that didn’t actually exist. But even my mangled version involved two senses of “go” and one of “went,” so I still get ten points.

“Go” is, of course, one of the oldest and most basic English words, first appearing in Old English as “gan,” based on the Indo-European root “ghe.” The general connotation of “to go” is to move, either literally or figuratively, in most senses away from a point (contrasted with “to come,” generally expressing movement towards the speaker’s position). Summarizing all the uses to which the English language has put “go” is seriously impractical here (the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists 48 senses of the word, most with at least four or five sub-senses). We are, after all, talking about a word, originally connoting physical motion, that is now regularly used (sense 44) to mean “To pass into a certain condition. Chiefly implying deterioration” (OED), as in “to go rogue,” “to go missing” and “to go medieval on someone.” The first “go” in that Saki quotation (“as cooks go”) reflects sense 15, “To have ordinarily a certain degree or range of value, amount, excellence, etc.” (“It was a good enough luncheon, as hotels go,” 1872). The second “go” reflects the original basic sense of “to leave a place.”

“Wend” also first appeared in Old English (in the form “wendan”), from Germanic roots carrying the general sense of “to turn or go.” In use as a transitive verb, “to wend” meant to turn something or change its direction. In intransitive use, however, it eventually meant not just to turn, but “to turn away, go, depart,” especially “to travel in a certain direction.” This is the primary sense in use today, and when we speak of “wending our way home” we’re really just saying “going home,” although “wend” tends to carry a connotation of a more casual pace and perhaps a more roundabout route than usual. (“Wend,” as you suspected, does indeed come from the same Germanic roots that produced “wander.”)

In Old and Middle English “go” (“gan” at that time) only existed in the present tense “ga” and the past participle “gegan”; for the past tense we used “eode” (later, in Middle English, “yede” or “yode”), which actually belonged to another long-obsolete Germanic verb also meaning “go.” The verb “to wend” (“wendan” in Old English) was a bit more conventional, with the past tense and past participle of, respectively, “wende” and “wended.” But, beginning in the 13th century, those forms sometimes appeared as “wente” and “went,” and those spellings eventually became standard.

During this same period of time, “to go” and “to wend” came to be used as synonyms, and “wend” actually began to fade from use, at least in the present tense. So it’s not surprising that people started using the past tense of “wend,” which was “went,” as the past tense of “to go.” Poor little “wend,” having been effectively robbed of its past tense “went,” developed a new past tense, “wended,” still in use today.

So, long story short, the past tense of “to go” is “went,” not because “went” developed organically from “go,” but because people using “go” just decided to use it. It’s a long and confusing story, but it’s also a vivid illustration of the fact that English was developed by the people speaking it, not by some committee or commission.



Dear Word Detective: I’d like to put in a plug for “taken aback,” as opposed to its apparent replacement, “taken back.” I think this locution is the work of people who don’t quite “get” the original phrase and therefore assume that it, rather than their understanding, is deficient in some way. Thus they feel free to “fix” the problem based on their own extensive understanding of our native tongue. “Taken back” appears several times in the stage directions — not the dialogue — of the pilot script for a TV show that debuts in mid-September. I just finished reading it last night, and I winced every time I came across it. I could almost see putting it in the mouth of a character — to show how ill-educated he or she is. How a professional writer who was no doubt paid big bucks could commit such a crime against form and sense is beyond me. — Joe.

Scriptwriters, don’t you just love ’em? Sometimes I think studios recruit them in shopping malls. Last week I was watching the new Fox series “Terra Nova,” in which people in 2149 travel back 85 million years to escape their dying civilization and to pet dinosaurs, when I heard one of the characters tell the hero, an ex-cop, that the new world needed more police officers “not so much.” It’s good to know that today’s trendy catch phrases will still be current in 138 years. Oh, well. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “Whatever.”

I agree that finding “taken back” in stage directions is quite a bit worse than seeing it in dialogue. It’s actually very depressing, because it indicates that the person who wrote the script had heard (and perhaps misheard) the phrase, but apparently never read it, and you cannot have read much worth reading without encountering “aback.” If it’s any consolation, there seem to be a lot of people online reacting to “taken back” with shock and horror.

“Aback” first appeared in Old English as the adverbial phrase “on baec” meaning simply “to or at the rear,” describing either motion or position. (That “baec” also gave us our modern noun “back”) “Aback” was used in this sense in modern English, particularly in the phrases “to hold aback” (to restrain or hinder) and “to stand aback from” (to stand aloof from, or avoid). Both of these phrases shed the “a” prefix by the late 17th century, and today we just say “hold back” and “stand back.”

“Aback” in the modern sense found in the phrase “taken aback,” meaning “suddenly surprised” or “stopped by surprise,” is one of those rare English phrases that actually sprang from the decks of square-rigged sailing ships. A sailing ship is “taken aback” when, because of either a shift in the wind or an error by the crew, it is suddenly sailing directly into the wind and the sails are blown back against the masts, halting all progress. In the worst-case scenario, the ship is actually pushed backwards by the wind, which can be very dangerous, especially in rough weather.

The sailing phrase “taken aback,” with its connotation of a sudden reversal, was a perfect metaphor for that moment when the unexpected happens and the wind is suddenly figuratively blowing in your face, rocking you back on your heels (“I don’t think I was ever so taken aback in all my life,” Dickens, 1842). This figurative use first appeared in the mid-19th century and “taken aback” has become so common an idiom that few people are aware of its nautical origins.

“Taken back,” on the other hand, at best has all the semantic impact of returning something to Target. The phrase “taken back,” unlike “taken aback,” has no single strong idiomatic meaning. It could apply to one person “taking back” a gift, an army “taking back” territory, a person “taking back” an insult to a friend, and so on. “Larry was taken aback by Laura’s accusation” is clear and vivid. “Larry was taken back by Laura’s accusation” is confusing nonsense. That a highly-paid scriptwriter apparently does not know the difference is both infuriating and depressing.

Gruel / Grueling

Second prize is two bowls.

Dear Word Detective: What is the connection between “grueling” and “gruel”? One might describe eating gruel as boring, insufficiently nourishing, or even nauseating — but grueling, not so much, unless gruel has changed since when I was an orphan. — Patrick Bowman.

Hmm. I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but I wasn’t aware that being an orphan was something one outgrows. In any case, it’s funny you should mention gruel. I’ve noticed that a lot of the upscale decorating salons and pet grooming parlors in the strip malls around here have gone belly-up lately due to the economy, and have been replaced, if at all, by payday lenders and dollar stores. So I think the time is right to open a chain of low-cost eateries serving delicious, nutritious gruel, perhaps with a crust of bread for big spenders. The ad slogans write themselves (e.g., “Good buy? Gruel World!”), and the main ingredient is, after all, pretty near free. I think fifty-cent bowls and free wi-fi would be a hit.

The funny thing about gruel (ok, maybe not funny, but interesting) is that, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it doesn’t really sound that bad: “A light, liquid food (chiefly used as an article of diet for invalids) made by boiling oatmeal (or occasionally some other farinaceous substance) in water or milk, sometimes with the addition of other ingredients, as butter, sugar, spices, onions, etc.” Onions in oatmeal? But apparently chopped meat is also often an ingredient in gruel, so chacon a son gout, as they say in France. The word “gruel,” which first showed up in English in the 14th century, does in fact come from Old French, which formed it on roots meaning “grain which has been ground.”

While gruel as defined by the dictionary doesn’t sound too bad, in practice it was often thin, watery and bland, well suited for the sick because it was easily digestible, but hardly anyone’s favorite food. It was also a staple item on the menu of prisons, asylums and orphanages, so the public perception of gruel has never been positive. Thus “gruel” has long been used in a figurative sense to mean “something (especially an argument, proposal or excuse) that lacks substance” (“Clark’s jobs plan thin gruel to Nanaimo’s down and out,” Globe and Mail, 9/22/11).

With gruel being widely considered unpleasant medicine at best, it’s not surprising that “to be given one’s gruel” and similar phrases, meaning literally “to take one’s medicine,” came to mean “to receive one’s punishment” or even “to get killed” in the late 18th century (“He gathered … that they expressed great indignation against some individual. ‘He shall have his gruel,’ said one,” Sir Walter Scott, 1815). This sense of “getting one’s gruel” as a punishment produced, in the early 19th century, the verb “to gruel,” which meant “to punish” and specifically “to exhaust or disable.” This verb “to gruel,” in turn, produced, in the mid-18th century, the adjective “grueling,” meaning “exhausting” or “punishing” in the sense of requiring extreme exertion (“After a grueling finish, Magdalen just struggled home by two feet amidst great excitement,” 1891). And it took until the 1970s, but there’s now even an adverbial member of the family (“This gruelingly competitive industry,” Financial Times, 1987).

All in all, the evolution of “gruel” into “grueling” hasn’t been entirely fair to a mild broth designed to comfort the tummies of invalids.