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Category — words

Fun with words: Oh, Henry

I’m reading (on my iPad, hooray), Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove. I thought that perhaps I was descending into idiocy, but in researching this post I was gratified to learn that even admirer Edith Wharton found his later works to be nearly incomprehensible. The language and the narrative are similar: challenging, opaque. Beyond the veil the book offers convincing psychological clarity and the pleasure of enjoying of the brilliant use of English.

I don’t wish to write about the book, however; just one single word in it, whose use was, in its time, likely common: “I engage myself to you for ever,” (Kate Croy, wishing to commit herself to marriage, or at least, maybe, the possibility, if only… yes, it’s complicated).

I wondered at the unusual employment of engage. Of course people who are affianced are described as “engaged,” but I had never seen the word used in the active voice—that is, one expects to see “I am engaged” not “I engage myself.” The iPad’s built-in dictionary offered no definition supporting this use, but in the etymological note it stated that the word is derived from one meaning, “to pawn or pledge something,” later coming to mean “to pawn or pledge oneself,” and, by mid 16th century, “enter into a contract”. The word later comes to describe meeting in combat, and then finally reaches the modern, and very much abstracted from the original, meaning of “to be involved with.” The original meaning is nearly obliterated except in the vestigial remnant of “they are engaged [affianced]“1.

Other words of pledging develop special uses (e.g., “commit troops to combat”) but I find that the history of this word to be curious. Originally it focused on the pledging a thing, or oneself, to another, but eventually the focus of the word moved from the one promising to the effect of the promise on its recipient in the interaction of the two parties. Consider, for example, “they were engaged in a discussion,” or “the two gears engaged.”

I was surprised to see that this word is not Latinate. It comes from French through German. Cursory further digging suggests that, accounting for the shift from Germanic w to French g, (en)gage is related to wage and wed2.


1 I’m not sure what dictionary the iPad uses or I would attribute this etymology. It appears to be the same dictionary in OS X’s Dictionary.app.

2 Again, as per Dictionary.app.

April 24, 2010   2 Comments