I ween

In “When I was a lad”, from Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore (1878), Sir Joseph Porter, the First Lord of the Admiralty, sings:

Of legal knowledge I acquired such a grip
That they took me into the partnership.
And that junior partnership, I ween,
Was the only ship that I ever had seen.

A still from the 2017 Stratford Festival performance of this song; you can watch a YouTube video of the this performance here

It came by on my iTunes a couple days ago, causing me to realize that the only occurrences of the verb ween — meaning, to judge from the context, something like ‘think, believe’ — that I can recall having experienced were in parenthetical I ween in G&S operetttas.  Notably, in Pinafore, which I’ve been listening to (or watching, or assisting in productions of) for over 60 years, but also in this couplet in “Kind sir, you cannot have the heart”, from The Gondoliers, so memorable to me because of its potential for queer wordplay:

Oh, ’tis a glorious thing, I ween,
To be a regular Royal Queen

But what of this strange, stilted-sounding verb that seems to occur only in parenthetical I ween?

It once was an everyday verb. But then it pretty much dropped out of use, except as a deliberate archaism (NOAD, archaism sense c: ‘the use or conscious imitation of very old or old-fashioned styles or features in language or art’), and then mostly in I ween (serving as a kind of formula).

OED2 has quite an extensive entry — sampled below — for the verb ween, going back to Old English, but with most of the subentries marked as obsolete. (The entry was first published in 1926; it’s in the middle of a wholesale revision, with the latest version published online on March 2021.) The verb historically had the forms ween (both PRS and BSE), weened, and weening (all with various spellings), plus a few exx. of Pres3Sg weeneth, but no examples of Pres3Sg weens; over the years I ween seems to have become the predominant form.

A sampling from the ween material that is treated as now merely archaic (with examples that are relatively recent — 19th-century, like the G&S quotes; the current version of the entry has no 20th-century examples):

Obsolete exc. archaic.

1. transitive. In regard to what is present or past: To think, surmise, suppose, conceive, believe, consider. In Middle English often with well.

a. Const. object-clause, with or without that. [exx.: 1805 W. Scott Lay of Last Minstrel iii. xxxi. 89 Some said that there were thousands ten; And others weened that it was nought, But Leven clans, or Tynedale men. 1838 E. B. Browning Deserted Garden xii Though never a dream the roses sent Of science or love’s compliment, I ween they smelt as sweet.]

… g.  elliptical or absol. Usually with adverb or conj. (asthanwhen, etc.). [exx.: 1808 W. Scott Marmion i. xxii. 42 Even our good chaplain, as I ween, Since our last siege, we have not seen. 1850 E. B. Browning House of Clouds viii Named as Fancy weeneth.]

h. used parenthetically (esp. in  I ween) rather than as governing the sentence. In verse often a mere tag. [exx.: 1835 E. Bulwer-Lytton Rienzi I. i. v. 86 And never, I ween well, had she greater need of true friends than now. 1842 R. H. Barham Ingoldsby Penance! in  Ingoldsby Legends 2nd Ser. 91 A stalwart knight, I ween, was he.]

2. … c. With infinitive, present or perfect, with or without to …: To expect, hope, wish; to purpose, intend, be minded. [ex.: 1667 J. Milton Paradise Lost vi. 86 They weend That self same day by fight, or by surprize To win the Mount of God.]

d. elliptical with adverb (e.g. least), or conj. (ere, sooner, than, etc.), instead of infinitive or object-clause. [ex.: 1814 H. F. Cary tr. Dante Vision III. xxxi. 53 Round I turned With purpose of my lady to inquire..But answer found from other than I weened.]

(The examples here are predominantly I ween, but there are three of ween(e)d and one of weeneth.)

3 Responses to “I ween”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    But then it pretty much dropped out of use, except as a deliberate archaism

    Which, conveniently, rhymes with a good many useful English words.

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