woe betide

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woe betide

Post by Ken Greenwald » Fri Sep 28, 2018 8:18 pm

<2018 “In Skaife’s [[author of The Ravenemaster: My Life With the Ravens at the Tower of London]] telling, the shifting social structure of his ravens plays out like a nail-bittingly intense soap opera, and woe betide the handler who can’t keep up.”—The Atlantic, October, page 43>
Since the expression ‘woe betide’ shows up in the vast majority of appearances of the word “betide,” I’m giving this posting the name of this two-word expression. Also, I would note that in my searches it shows up mainly in United Kingdom publications, especially in recent years.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary

betide verb

transitive verb
1) to happen to : befall — now used chiefly in the expression woe betide <Woe betide anyone who breaks the law.> <Woe betide our enemies.>
2) forebode, presage <Such omens betide no good.>

intransitive verb
1) befall, happen <Hope . . . must abide with all of us, whate'er betide — William Wordsworth>
2) obsolete: To be the fate or end — used with of or on. <If he were dead, what would betide on me? — Shakespeare>
3) betoken, forebode

Origin of betide: Middle English betiden, from be- + tiden to happen

First Known Use: before 12th century (transitive sense 1)

Synonyms: be, befall, chance, come, come about, come down, come off, cook, do, go on, happen, occur, pass, transpire

The following quotes are from The Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources:
<1832 “Whatever fortune betides you.”—Hill and Valley by H. Martineau, ix. page 139>

<1868 “Woe betide the unfortunate shipmaster.”—A Political Survey by M. E. Grant Duff, page 194>

<1934 “Whatever Else Betide try a Black & White Cigar 5₵”—from an advertising poster in The New York Public Library (2009)>

<1988 “Woe betide the Pentagon pencil-pusher who thinks about closing a military base!”—The Washington Post (D.C.), 26 June>

<1996 “The company that drops its price first will come out on top - and woe betide the one that ‘could have gone lower’.”—The Mail on Sunday (London), 7 January>

<2002 “Petty it may be but we English are quite happy to criticise our country's shortfalls but woe betide any outsider who dares to to do the same.”— Liverpool Echo (England), 10 June>

<2012 “Woe betide the small investor who gets sucked into investing in the ‘star’ fund at just that moment.”—The Economist (U.S.), 15 December>

<2018 “But woe betide you fall ill abroad. You're on your own.”—Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland), 20 September>


Ken Greenwald – September 28, 2018

Re: woe betide

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sat Sep 29, 2018 2:11 am

The expression 'woe betide' appears to be a subjunctive form that is short for "May [or let] woe betide you" [often with 'if X happens' or 'if you do Y'] — in other words, it is to be hoped that bad things will befall you [if X happens or if you do Y].

However, the usage does not appear to have a consistent meaning, because it can be applied both in situations where it would be appropriate to call down misery on someone's head ("Woe betide our enemies") and where it would not ("Woe betide any soloists who find themselves urgently needing to use the toilet during a performance").

To me, this is a sign that the expression has become transmogrified into an all-purpose warning/curse as people have stopped analysing the literal meaning of the words and have begun to apply it more widely than the literal meaning would suggest.

Re: woe betide

Post by trolley » Sat Sep 29, 2018 5:13 pm

After reading this I thought, "Oh no! I 've been packing an eggcorn around in my pocket for my whole life." It turned out not to be the case, though. My dear old mom always used an expression, "fit to be tied" meaning very angry. Ken had me thinking that I had misinterpreted that saying for sixty years.

Re: woe betide

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sat Sep 29, 2018 6:01 pm


Interesting observation: betide / be tied. Who would have thunk? Damn the English language! :evil:

Ken Greenwald - September 29, 2018

Re: woe betide

Post by Phil White » Sat Sep 29, 2018 10:16 pm

Thanks, Ken. There are some things that are so ubiquitous (and "woe betide" is pretty ubiquitous in my corner of the linguistic universe) that we give no thought to them. It would not have crossed my mind that this is not in common use in the US.

Another one that I hear and use is "that betides ill". It truly surprises me that there are very few Google hits for that one.
Signature: Phil White
Non sum felix lepus

Re: woe betide

Post by trolley » Sat Sep 29, 2018 10:37 pm

With any luck, it will bode ill before it actually betides ill. That way, you have at least a half-chance of avoiding it.

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