9 February 2017

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“Don’t say ‘learn ‘em,’ Toad,” said the Rat, greatly shocked. “It’s not good English.”

“What are you always nagging at Toad for?” inquired the Badger, rather peevishly. “What’s the matter with his English? It's the same what I use myself, and if it's good enough for me, it ought to be good enough for you!”

“I’m very sorry,” said the Rat humbly. “Only I THINK it ought to be ‘teach ‘em,’ not ‘learn ‘em.’”

“But we don't WANT to teach ‘em,” replied the Badger. “We want to LEARN 'em—learn 'em, learn 'em! And what's more, we're going to DO it, too!”

 
 
 
Thinking both of cosmic justice and the niceties of grammar, a friend asks:  Why can’t I say, “He’s got to be smote”?
 


God-s computer.JPG

 
Because it’s ungrammatical:  smite smote smitten is conjugated exactly like write wrote written.

Jane wrote a letter.

God smote a sinner.

A letter was written.

A sinner was smitten.

In contemporary English, smitten is the only correct past participle form of smite—and that’s that.  Nowadays, it’s all but inseparably linked with love—Oooh, he’s smitten—and it just sounds foolish when we speak of righteousness.  Yet smitten has an ancient and resounding history:
 
Therefore is the anger of the Lord kindled against his people, and he hath stretched foorth his hande against them, and hath smitten them: and the hilles did tremble, and their carkeises were torne in the midst of the streets: for all this, his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still—Isaiah 5:25.

And the fourth Angel sounded, and the thirde part of the Sunne was smitten, & the third part of the Moone, and the third part of the starres, so as the third part of them was darkened: and the day shone not for a third part of it, and the night likewise —Revelation 8:12.

There’s good secular stuff as well (all OED):

1610:  His head smitten off, and the truncke of his body throwen into the fire.
c1650:  For when his leggs were smitten of, he fought vpon his stumpes.
1668:  A Dog Barketh, & Baugheth, being smitten Yelpeth.
1820 (Shelley):  Six the thunder has smitten, And they lie black as mummies.

 
LEME.jpg
 

In his Dictionarium Linguae Latinae et Anglicanae (1587), Thomas Thomas defines percussus as “Striken, smitten, beaten, hit, wounded, murdered, blasted, striken with lightning.”

In John Florio’s A World of Words (1598), he glosses the Italian Battuto as “beaten, smitten, striken, knockt, thumpt, bumbasted, threshd.”  Bumbasted!  Now that’s more like it.  Cupid was rougher in those days.

Nonetheless, to some discerning modern ears, smitten is flimsy.

Compare:

The LORD GOD “Who smote the first borne of Egypt: both of man and beast.”

And:

All the fourth form were simply smitten with Miss Baxter, who smote the ball for six.

Smitten is giggly and coy.  It’s kittenish.

Whereas smote hath gravitas. It has authority and weight.  It nails it:

"Then Iael Hebers wife, tooke a naile of the tent, and tooke an hammer in her hand, and went softly vnto him, and smote the naile into his temples, and fastened it into the ground: (for he was fast asleepe, and weary;) so he died."—Judges 4:21.
 
In a famous crux, Old Hamlet “smot the sledded Pollax on the Ice.”

Milton’s Cain

Smote him [Abel] into the midriff with a stone
That beat out life; he fell, and deadly pale
Groan'd out his soul with gushing blood effus'd.
 
Smote is the chosen verb of tempests and Arthurians:

Down came the storm, and smote amain the vessel.

He rode a-tilt and smote the scaly Dragon.

I smote you with heate, blastinge & hale stones.

Kyng Arthur..smote hym ageyne with Excalibur that it clefte his hede.

Thenne Geffray smote hym the giant with his swerd.

He hurled vnto sir Tristram, & smote hym clene from his sadel.

I caught him by his beard, and smote him.
 
You may read in a thousand tales how X smote Y on the helm, through the neck, in the eye’s socket, “vnder the fift ribbe,” “hippe and thigh.”

Now look at smitten.  In 170 citations in the OED, beings and things are smitten with admiration, amazement, various diseases, charms, an absurd patriotism, love, giddiness, death, the blonde beauty, sorrow, Lavinia Orthodox, some withering and irreparable curse, muteness, mussel-poisoning, the Eternal Mind, an aria.

What happened?  The inflected word was taken over by the figurative.  One can be struck with something impalpable—an idea, an infatuation.   If swords and hammers smite, then so does lightning.  So does love.  Pepys was among the first to use it of lust.  By now, smitten has migrated to the metaphorical, all but entirely; smote remains archaic and physical.

What’s to be done?  I fear that smitten cannot be restored to its ancient vigour:  languages don’t work that way.  One could of course avoid the passive, not say,”the government was smitten by the people,” but “the people smote the government.”  But that’s restrictive as a work-around.  Why not embrace what people want to say?   “He was smote” was perfectly good English from the 15th through the 18th centuries.  I suggest that it be revived—and that smite be divided in two.   There’s some vanishing distinction made in English between struck and stricken (struck with a hammer; stricken with guilt).  Why not distinguish between smitten and smote, between besotted with her charms and clobbered by her handbag?

Young Corydon, with Phyllis smitten,
Woo’d with flow’rs—got the mitten.
Bold Hobbinol on her did dote,
Tried kissing her—was soundly smote.

By widespread, active, thoughtful usage, English-speakers everywhere could forge a new distinction between smitten and smote.  They will of course be corrected by pedantic grammarians; they will be edited; they will be mocked.  But if thousands do this?  “Friends, they may think it's a movement.”  And if precisians object, we can always cite Melville:  “The ship's forecastle bell, smote by one of the grizzled oakum-pickers, proclaimed ten o'clock, through the leaden calm.”

Nine


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