or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sooner or Later

Sometimes you learn by making mistakes.

Today I was writing an e-mail and instead of typing "rather", I accidently typed "rathe". It wasn't flagged by the auto-spellcheck, which means it's a word.

Really? "Rathe"?

I shouldn't be surprised, I guess. English is full of offbeat words, and "rathe" isn't really that unusual at all.

After some poking around and a few false starts ("rath" is not just a word in Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky": it's an Irish word meaning "a hill or mound"), I discovered that "rathe" is an obsolete adjective meaning "coming early in the season": it's used to refer to flowers or fruit. It's pronounced just as you would imagine it, to rhyme with "lathe" or "bathe".

And then the light went on: if "rathe" is an adjective, then "rather" pretty much certainly has to be the comparative version of it. And that's exactly the case, too. One of the senses of "rather" (it has more than you might think) is, in fact, "sooner": "I'd rather die" literally means "Before, which is to say sooner than, I would do that thing, I would choose death".

"Rathe" comes from Old English "hræth", back when words still started with "hr-", and that of course means that we got them from a Norse tongue (in this case Old Norse "hrathr").


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