October 18, 2000
James Clapp's essay on the phrase "till death us do part" set me to wondering about the old wedding vow "thereto I plight thee my troth," in which plight means 'pledge'. The noun plight means 'peril' or 'predicament'. Any thoughts on why the word has such different meanings?
The verb plight in the sense of 'pledge' was well-established by the time Thomas Cranmer used it in the marriage service of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549.
If we look back at this word in Old English, however, we find a different meaning. Pliht (pronounced with a short /i/) and its variant spellings meant 'danger' or 'risk' from its first appearance in the 9th century: mid micclan plihte, 'with great danger'. The Old English verb plihtan meant 'to bring danger upon an object'. It gradually came to mean 'to bring danger upon an object by risking its forfeiture'. If one made a pledge, one had a solemn responsibility to fulfill it; failure to do so could place life and property in peril, especially if the "plight" was a vow of allegiance to a ruler.
By the 14th century, the verb plight had come to mean 'to give in pledge' or 'to pledge (one's faithfulness or oath)'. It was used both in a general sense and with reference to betrothal or marriage. (Troth is a variant form of Old English treowth 'faithfulness'; another form of the word gives us Modern English truth.) "And in my hand youre trouthe plighten ye To loue my best," wrote Chaucer in "The Franklin's Tale" (1386). In the Register of Godstow Nunnery of 1450, we find "To this couenaunte to be holde truly and with-out gyle, bothe perties plight ther trowthes." "I thee plight" meant 'I promise you'.
Although we are now most familiar with plight as part of the marriage service, the OED has a number of citations with the more general meaning, including this one from Macaulay's History of England (1855): "They came in multitudes...to plight faith to William, rightful and lawful king."
In the other Germanic languages, the cognates of plight meaning 'pledge' took on the sense of 'responsibility'; German Pflicht and Dutch plicht mean 'duty' or 'obligation'.
Now on to the other plight, meaning 'predicament'. The Middle English form of this word is plit, plyt, or plyt. It derives from the Old French pleit or ploit 'fold' and is related to English plait. In addition to 'fold', ploit meant 'an act or manner of folding', and -- here's the important bit -- 'a manner of being' or 'condition'. English took over both of these meanings early on. A 1430 citation gives us the 'fold' sense: "Come forth clerk,...undoo these letteres out of plyt".
The sense 'manner of being' goes back to the 14th century in English. The 'condition' referred to was originally neutral or good. A Treatise on the Passion of Christ in 1534 says: "And [to] lyue here in suche pleasaunt plight as we shuld have lyued if Adam had not synned." When "plight" had a negative sense, that had to be specified. The author of the 14th century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight wrote: "Thus in peryl, & payne, & plytes ful harde."
In some dialects, the "g," the "h," or the "gh" of the Germanic word plight meaning 'pledge' was already lost in the 14th century. This left a word that was identical in spelling with the word of French origin meaning 'condition', though the Germanic word was still pronounced with a short /i/. Through some mysterious process, both words came to be pronounced with the long /i/ of the French word, but the spelling of both gradually shifted back to the Germanic plight. Something interesting happened to the meaning of the noun, too: originally a neutral word meaning simply 'condition', it acquired the sense of 'a harmful condition' -- perhaps under the influence of the other plight with its sense of 'a risky pledge'.
WORDS@RANDOM | The Mavens' Word of the Day | Sensitive Language
How to Choose A Dictionary | Book Search
|Copyright © 1995-2008 Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.