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At my grammar school, more than 50 years ago, one teacher would look sternly at a boy who had produced some lame excuse for a task not done, clasp the lapels of his academic gown in both hands and query him thusly: “speakest thou sooth, boy?” He clearly fancied himself as a wit, though we mentally added a second t.

Sooth does indeed mean “truth”, an Old English word. It has not been in daily use for about four centuries, except in the phrases by my sooth or my sooth, interjections now obsolete which emphasised that the speaker was telling the truth. Sooth was reintroduced in the nineteenth century as a literary archaism by writers such as Sir Walter Scott.

In sooth, there was that in her face and in her voice when she spoke which almost made Anne weep, through its strange sweetness and radiance.

A Lady of Quality, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1896. This work is exceptionally full of sooth — the author uses the word 20 times.

The best-known compounds of sooth are forsooth and soothsayer. The former literally means “in truth” or “truly” but for the past two centuries or so has been a humorous or derisive alternative to the disbelieving “Is that so?” or “Indeed?”

“Is one to have no privacy, Glossop?” I said coldly. “I instructed Jeeves to lock the door because I was about to disrobe.” “A likely story!” said Tuppy, and I’m not sure he didn’t add “Forsooth!”

Right Ho, Jeeves, by P G Wodehouse, 1934.

Soothsayer is much better known. This came into English early in the fourteenth century, with the meaning one might expect — a person who tells the truth. But within a century it had already been modified to mean somebody who claims to be able to foretell the future.

Futurology has rather fallen out of fashion since the spectacular failure of economists and other soothsayers to see the economic meltdown coming.

The Herald, 2 Mar. 2012.

Sooth and soothe make an interesting doublet. The two have the same origin, though the meaning of soothe has substantially diverged. In Old English soothe meant to verify something, to prove it to be true. From the sixteenth century on, soothe came successively to mean to corroborate some statement, then to flatter or humour a person by agreeing with them, then to mollify or appease and so to our current sense of rendering a person or animal calm or quiet.

When I searched current newspapers — for the most part unavailingly — for examples of sooth, I was intrigued to see how often soothe was now being spelled sooth. Those who make what is still regarded as an error are actually returning to the word’s roots.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 07 Apr 2012