DIGHT.

The Discouraging Word is only updated once a month or so these days, but it’s worth visiting, because it provides some real lexicographical entertainment. The latest entry (Sommer prowde with Daffadillies dight, Posted Saturday, April 30, 2005—there are no permalinks) focuses on the word “dight,” which I knew as an archaic word for ‘adorn’; I probably once knew, but had forgotten, that it was from Latin dictāre ‘to dictate, order.’ What I did not know was how it had once flourished; the OED says “From the senses of literary dictation and composition in which it was originally used, this verb received in ME. an extraordinary sense-development, so as to be one of the most widely used words in the language.” As TDW says, there are 16 primary definitions, but I feel obliged to point out that that the last one shouldn’t be there (it’s “an erroneous use by Spenser,” F.Q. I. viii. 18 “With which his hideous club aloft he dights”—one of the odd Victorian features of the OED is its deferential inclusion of hapax mistakes by Great Writers, which have no more linguistic significance than similar errors made by the man on the Clapham omnibus); I also want to point out definition 4.b.:

To have to do with sexually. Obs.
c1386 CHAUCER Wife’s Prol. 398 Al my walkynge out by nyghte Was for tespye wenches Þat he dighte. Ibid. 767 Lete hir lecchour dighte hire al the nyght. c1386 __ Manciple’s T. 208. 1393 LANGL. P. Pl. C. II. 27 In hus dronke~nesse a day hus douhtres he [Lot] dighte And lay by hem boÞe.

It never ceases to amaze me how many improbable words have been pressed into service by the insatiable Anglophone appetite for sexual vocabulary.

Comments

  1. Good to know! Those many shades are fun to think about with respect to Poe’s “Eldorado”–
    Gaily bedight,
    A gallant knight,
    In sunshine and in shadow,
    Had journeyed long,
    Singing a song,
    In search of Eldorado. . . .

  2. Noetica says:

    Poe clearly liked bedight. Two other occurrences:
    Lo! ’tis a gala night
       Within the lonesome latter years.
    An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
       In veils, and drowned in tears,
    Sit in a theatre to see
       A play of hopes and fears
    While the orchestra breathes fitfully
       The music of the spheres.
    The Conqueror Worm
    How, then, when we come to the representation? – when these passages – trifling, perhaps, in themselves, but important when considered in relation to the plot – are hurried and blurred over in the stuttering enunciation of some miserable rantipole, or omitted altogether through the constitutional lapse of memory so peculiar to those lights of the age and stage, bedight (from being of no conceivable use) supernumeraries?
    Criticism

  3. When I read the word “dight,” my mind went immediately back to Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, l. 146, “in Omer, or in Dares, or in Dyte.” Sadly, “dyte” in this context is merely an abbreviated form of the name Dictys Cretensis, a lesser reteller of the Trojan War.

  4. John Kozak says:

    I was driven to (and similarly impressed by) this OED entry by a section in “Directions for the Order of Carving Fowl”:
    Thigh that Woodcock
    Raise his legs as a hen, and dight his brain

  5. The Spenser is an instance where it’s legitimate for the dictionary to label it incorrect, but it still needs to be in there: there are many readers of Spenser (and other standard writers), and they need to be able to look up every word in the dictionary.

  6. I disagree. That’s what annotation is for; incorrect and other marginal usages should be discussed in an edition of the work in question, not in a dictionary, which is a record of the common language, not individual use and misuse. Would you want the OED to include, for instance, every portmanteau word in Joyce?

  7. Question about the etymology- although ‘dight’ surely does look derived from ‘dictare’, can’t it also be some variant of ‘decked’? That would fit the sense of the word cited in the samples better.

  8. ‘Fraid not. To take just one problem,the verb deck is “Not known before 16th c.” (in the curt words of the OED). It’s just one of those coincidences language is so full of.

  9. paulmiki says:

    I wonder which sense of “dight” gave rise to its use in a sexual context: “adorn, decorate” or “order, dictate.” The more poetic reading would be, I suppose, the one in which Chaucer’s wenches had been adorned rather than ordered (although “wenches” are arguably only *so* poetic).
    I can think of two other words that are used in both the “adorn” sense and the sexual relations sense: deck, trim
    The former is hardly decorous, conjuring up images of pouncing someone to the floor. Does anyone have any idea of the eymology of the latter?

  10. The history of the verb “trim” is complicated (and there’s no clear etymology); the OED says:
    [OE. had a verb trymman or trymian:—*trumjan to make firm or strong, strengthen, confirm, set (a force) in array, settle, arrange, etc., f. OE. trum adj. firm, strong, sound, steadfast, stable, etc. So far as the form is concerned, trymman, trymian would naturally become trym, trim by 1500; the sense ‘make fit, make ready, prepare, fit out’ might also arise out of the OE. The difficulty is that not one certain example of the verb in any sense is known during the Middle English period, and that it comes upon the scene in the 16th c., like a new word, quickly laid hold of to supply many needs. But as no other source is known, it is generally held that trim is identical with the OE. trymman, and that the verb (perh. along with TRIM a.), must have been preserved in spoken use, or in some dialect, for four centuries, without appearing in the extant literature.]
    The Cassell Dictionary of Slang says the slang noun trim [1930s+] ‘a woman, always in a sexual context’ may derive from the adjective trim ‘neat, attractive, pretty,’ but of course the etymology of slang is usually a matter of guesswork.

  11. I was researching Edgar Allan Poe’s “Eldorado” and found this thread stimulating and interesting – thank you.

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