Friday, September 08, 2006

Today's English lesson

From The Mavens' Word of the Day:

Lo! And Behold!

Spencer A. Nonymous wrote:
In a letter...I started to write lo and behold and realized that I was unsure of the spelling. Is it lo and behold or low and behold? I asked a few people and we can't seem to agree.

It's definitely lo, an interjection meaning 'look! see! (frequently used in Biblical expressions; now usually used as an expression of surprise in the phrase lo and behold)'. Just to confuse us, though, "low" was one of the many early spellings for that interjection, in a list that also includes "lou," "lowe," and "loo." But that "low" is not the one that means the opposite of "high," and the two words are not etymologically related. To confuse us further, we now have another "lo," which does mean 'low', as in "lo-calorie." No wonder people find English baffling.

Our lo of the day probably comes from Middle English lo, a shortened form of loke, in turn from Old English loca, imperative of locian 'to look'.

The phrase has been used in serious literature since at least the 1800s. To cite just one example, "Lo and behold, there was something the matter with the great clock; and a workman on a pair of steps had taken its face off, and was poking instruments into the works...." (Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son).

Lo alone is attested from around 1000. Perhaps its most well-known use, without "behold," is from Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism (1711), which begins with the familiar "Hope springs eternal in the human breast." The crucial lines are,

"The soul, uneasy, and confined from home
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutored mind
Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind..."

We can either grant generously that there was a genuine error in interpreting Pope's lines or else assume that some very early "politically incorrect" person found the phrase "Lo, the poor Indian" funny, because there has since been some limited use of "Lo" to mean 'Indian'! The cites are primarily facetious, as in R.P.T. Coffin's 1947 "He went to join Lo, the Poor Indian, on the Happy Hunting Grounds."

As for the phrase itself--lo and behold, what we have here is yet another example of redundancy in English! This one would translate as "Look and look." I have checked with our younger Mavens to see if there is a phrasal equivalent of lo and behold in current use, redundant or not. They've come up with nothing so far, and we begin to suspect that today's twenty-somethings cannot be surprised.

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