forgo: To abstain from, go without, deny oneself

If that word looks a little odd to you, it’s perhaps because you’ve seen it written “forego” more often than “forgo”.

But forego is a different word, meaning “to go before, or in advance of”. At a Burns Supper, a few may be tempted to forgo the haggis, but only the piper is required to forego the haggis.Piping in the haggis

The trouble is, the verb to forego isn’t much used any more. It generally only sees the light of day as an adjective, as either foregoing or foregone, the latter almost always in the stock phrase “foregone conclusion”. Forgo is in more common use—people forgo things more often than they forego things. But since that Old English for- prefix is relatively unfamiliar, whereas fore- is still being used to form new words, the more common word seems to be making a determined bid to steal the other’s spelling.

Another for-/fore- confusion, invisible to spellcheckers, crops up with the forbear/forebear pair. The verb is to forbear, meaning “to abstain or refrain from”; the noun is forebear, meaning “an ancestor”.

And then there’s forgather/ foregather. A Scots word, borrowed from the Dutch, to forgather is “to assemble, to gather together”. Somewhere along the line people began to write foregather instead, as if the gathering was being done in preparation for some event. Nowadays you can get away with either spelling, but the fore- version is a little misleading.

The prefix fore- almost always signals something to do with the idea of preceding, in time or space—think forecast or forefront. But for- turns out to be a bit of a mess. The Oxford English Dictionary manages to come up with ten subtly different meanings signalled by for-, but I won’t list them all. The highlights, together with some examples still in (more or less) current use are:

  • away, off, apart: forget, forgive
  • prohibition: forbid, forfend
  • abstention or neglect: forbear, forgo, forsake, forswear
  • excess or intensity: forlorn

That last one makes us wonder what “lorn” might mean, if forlorn is to be interpreted as “intensely lorn”. It turns out that there was an Old English verb leese, “to be deprived of”, of which lorn was the past participle, later pressed into adjectival use: “abandoned, desolate, wretched”.

Sailor's Word Book coverBeing an Old English prefix, we can find analogues of for- in other Germanic languages—German and Dutch have a prefix ver-, for example, which does a similar job. It crops up in the old Dutch expression verloren hoop, “lost troop”, who were a group of picked soldiers sent out in advance of the main party as skirmishers. Bad stuff tended to happen to them. (The French called such soldiers the enfants perdus, “lost children”.) Verloren hoop made its way into English as both forlorn hope and flowing hope. The latter seems more upbeat, but the former prevailed in common usage:

FORLORN HOPE. Officers and men detached on desperate service to make a first attack, or to be the first in mounting a breach, or foremost in storming a fortress, or first to receive the whole fire of the enemy. […] Promotion is usually bestowed on the survivors.

Admiral W.H. Smythe The Sailor’s Word Book (1867)

Nowadays, we’re left with only the figurative meaning.

There used to be a lot more for- words than there are now, and I for one mourn their passing. Here’s a sampler:

forslug: to neglect through sluggishness
forgab: to defame; to publish someone else’s misdeeds
forgnaw: to gnaw to pieces
forweep: to exhaust oneself through weeping
fordin: to fill with noise
forbliss: to make happy
fordeave: to deafen
formeagre: to make thin

forfrorn: stuck fast in ice
forswarted: blackened
forbritten: broken in pieces
forcrazed: fallen to pieces
forfrushed: shattered to pieces
forstormed: tempest-tossed
forwintered: reduced to straits by winter
forflitten: excessively scolded
forglopned: overwhelmed by astonishment
forswunk: exhausted with labour

Surely, between us, we can get some of these back into circulation?

Note: Predictably enough, the spellchecker on my website software refuses to believe there’s such a word as forgo. Sigh.

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