Wanhope: hopelessness, despair

Caxton's Canterbury Tales
Caxton’s 1477 edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
(Folger Shakespeare Library call number: STC 5082, fol. 108v)
Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International Licence

Now comth wanhope þat is dispeire of the mercy of god þat comth somtyme of to moch outrageous sorow and som tyme of to moch drede

Geoffrey Chaucer The Parson’s Tale (c.1400)

I’ve fallen into the habit, recently, of picking words from current affairs for my posts about etymology and usage. I thought it was perhaps about time I reverted to resuscitating obscure words with interesting histories, and wanhope, which turned up recently in my reading, gives me the opportunity.

Wan- is an Old English prefix “expressing privation or negation”, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary. It has long ceased to be active in producing words, but in its day was used to modify meaning in the same way as un- or mis- does today. So a state of wanhope was a state of complete deprivation of hope. In Chaucer’s time, that loss of hope was often religious in nature—”despair of the mercy of God”, as he puts it. It was an extreme condition, as Chaucer makes clear, coming “sometimes of too much outrageous sorrow, and sometimes of too much dread”.

J.R.R. Tolkien used many fine old words in his Lord of the Rings cycle, and wanhope was among them. Here it is in one of the Unfinished Tales, “The Istari“:

[Gandalf] was the Enemy of Sauron, opposing the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles, and succours in wanhope and distress

In The Origins Of English Words (1984), Joseph Shipley errs in giving it a milder meaning:

Almost forgotten is wanhope, gentler than despair, softer than hope against hope.

He seems to have been influenced by the modern meaning of the adjective wan, “pale, sickly”. But the old English prefix is more related to the verbs wane and want, implying something lacking. The origin of the adjective wan seems to be obscure, and the OED is uncertain whether it is related to wane or merely influenced by it. But it originally meant “dark, leaden hued, lacking in light”—the Scots noun wan, meaning “bruise”, preserves that old meaning. Then confusion arose. The faces of the sick or dead were described as being wan; the light of dim stars was also wan—and so the word switched its meaning from “dark” to “pale”.

The prefix wan- barely survived into Middle English, but it spawned a fine list of now-forgotten words: for instance, wanchancy “unlucky”, wandought “feeble”, and wanthriven “stunted”. My personal favourite is wanweird, “ill fate”, from the old usage of the word weird to mean “destiny”. The only one that has survived into current usage is wanton, “undisciplined”, which comes to us from Middle English wantowen, “lacking training”.

I won’t spend much time on hope, beyond pointing out that I doubt Shipley’s attempt to connect it to hop (“watch a boy in eager expectation”), and mentioning that I’ve dealt with the unexpected original meaning of forlorn hope in a previous post dealing with the prefix for-.

Oh, and then there’s hopefully, a perfectly useful adverb meaning “with a feeling of hope”, which does not deserve the vitriol poured upon it. It’s become strangely popular to hate the use of the word  hopefully at the start of a sentence. This usage is called a sentence adverb, it has a long history in English, and there must be a hundred adverbs that are used in this way, either to say what the writer feels about what follows, or to put the rest of the sentence into a particular context—obviously, technically, curiously, regrettably, ironically, clearly, thankfully, theoretically … and so on.

Frankly, I’ve scant idea why the grammar snobs have all piled on to poor little hopefully—the argument that curiously (for instance) can be expanded to “it is curious that …”, whereas hopefully unpacks to “I hope that …” (thereby unavoidably intruding the writer into the sentence) doesn’t seem to stand up to careful thought. Surely curiously expresses the writer’s opinion that what follows is indeed curious (“I find it curious that …”), and obviously reflects the writer’s opinion on what is obvious, just as much as hopefully expresses the writer’s feeling of hope (“I am hopeful that …”). But poor hopefully has become what Bryan A. Garner calls a “skunked term”—one can no longer use it either as a standard adverb or a sentence adverb without creating confusion or annoyance in some of one’s readers.

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