BE THAT AS IT WHAT?

Over at Language Log, Arnold Zwicky wondered about the history of the expression be that as it may/will, the will variant being stigmatized in his newly acquired 1915 usage guide Faulty Diction. Mark Liberman does the research and discovers that the will variant was more common in the early 18th century, but at midcentury may started catching up, around 1775 their graphs cross, and the 19th century sees a remarkable spike in the use of may (presumably accounting for the book’s confident pronouncement). By century’s end, both have sunk into the desuetude in which they languish to this day. The ability to easily do this kind of historical legwork is one of the blessings of our own century.

Comments

  1. I use an old CD-ROM called Library of the Future for quick and dirty historical corpus work.
    For the will variant I get four works of literature written in English (not translations, I mean): Tom Jones (Fielding); Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Second Essay on Civil Government (Locke); Gulliver’s Travels (Swift).
    For the may variant I get fourteen, the earliest of which is Rosamund Grey (Lamb, 1798).
    So yes. The methodology in the links seems to favour counting of occurrences, rather than works or authors; but counting authors might be at least as relevant.
    I wonder what exactly it is that drives the shift to may? Seems to me that the two qualifications tend differently in their meanings. I think I would be reluctant to use one in the place of the other without weighing semantic implications, even if I thought both were equally idiomatic and current.

  2. …I’ve always heard the phrase as “be that as it were”. Hm.

  3. Really, Becci? Sounds catachrestic to me.

  4. “Be that as it may” sunk into desuetude? Really? It strikes me as a phrase I run across fairly often, including spoken English, and still vital, although I have no numbers to back that up.

  5. michael farris says:

    Yeah, “be that as it will” sounds very strange to me, either archaic or non-native or …. something.
    On the other hand, “be that is it may” seems perfectly normal and even though I can’t empirically back it up I thought it was still in common use.

  6. It’s still in use, sure, but I suspect it’s only among those whose language has a fairly literary bent. Google gives 386,000 hits, which is decent but pales in comparison to, say, the 3,310,000 for “give me a break.” By “desuetude” I didn’t mean “complete oblivion,” just that it’s fallen out of common usage.

  7. I agree with the people who feel that “desuetude” is too strong an expression. “Be that as it may” sounds quite normal or natural to me. Perhaps not very slangy, but certainly a common enough phrase.

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