Word of the Day: seethe

Word of the Day: seethe.


It’s a good old Anglo Saxon word, but it did not mean to grow angry, scowling, waiting the chance to strike. It meant, simply, to boil. Why didn’t the Anglo Saxons say boil if they meant boil? Or berl, if they were from Brooklyn-on-the-Thames? Or bo’ll, if they were from Southwark? They hadn’t been invaded by the French, that’s why. I suppose that English stewards cooking (a French word) soup (a French word) for their dukes (a French word) would boil it – seething with resentment. Boil comes from a stock of Latin / Romance words having to do with bubbling over: an ebullient man is the life of the party.

The old meaning of the word is preserved in the King James account of the manna from heaven: “Bake that which ye will bake today, and seethe that which ye will seethe” (Ex. 16:23). The past tense form wasn’t seethed, but sod (!): “And Jacob sod pottage; and Esau came from the field, and he was faint” (Gen. 25:29). That didn’t mean that Jacob sprinkled dirt into the stew. He sod the stew in a pot: he boiled it.
Strangely enough, we don’t have the old past form, but we do still have the past participle: sodden. But we don’t use it to mean boiled. Something is sodden when it is wet all through, usually miserably so: “I couldn’t wait to take off those sodden clothes.” Not boiled clothes, but sodden, and so almost as bad.

English is peculiar in this regard; I don’t know any other language that is like it. It’s not that unusual for a language to have two forms of the past tense, one older and one younger, one surviving here and there, the other taking over little by little. But in English, we have verbs that are decidedly mixed, with a “weak” past tense but a “strong” past participle: show, showed, shown. Some of those (like show) never had that odd past participle, but developed it by analogy with other verbs that sounded similar: fly, flew, flown; grow, grew, grown. Then there are others that have the old past participle but only use it as an adjective. The lawyer has a cloven hoof, but we don’t say that he has cloven the Constitution. We say that he’s cleft it. You may have engraved a golden calf, which is bad, because that means that you’ve made unto yourself a graven image. So persistent are these olden-days adjectival forms, they even lead us to invent them where they never existed before. I’ve shaved myself this morning so that I will be clean shaven for work: and shaven is a newish form, built by analogy from the older graven, carven, cloven. I’ve mowed a lot of hay in my day, and love the smell of that new-mown hay; and that too is a newish word. Same with sown, sewn, hewn.

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