A letter in a local newspaper last week (Galway Advertiser, 4 August 2011) contained a sentence with an unusual feature:
After his own campaign team had abandoned him, it must have provided some sooth for David Norris that the woman who had denied him the chance to speak to Galway City Council was still tirelessly canvassing for support.
I was struck by the use of sooth as an apparent synonym for comfort, solace or consolation. If this sooth was inferred from soothe (v.), as I suspect it was, then it is a novel usage – novel to me at least.
Since it changes the word’s category, I thought at first it might be a derivation or back-formation. Some sources, however, say derivation and back-formation require, respectively, the addition and removal of an affix; the –e in soothe does not seem to be an affix (see below).
Sooth and soothe have a close historical connection: sooth is an archaic word meaning truth, fact, or verity, familiar from words like forsooth and soothsayer (and with related adjectival and adverbial senses, also archaic), while soothe originally meant prove or show to be true before it took on the sense placate, relieve, comfort.
I find sooth in various corpora used mostly either in the nominal sense of truth (often “in sooth”) or as a variant of the verb soothe. There was also a sooth (n.) meaning “flattery, blandishments” (OED), but this is hardly what the letter-writer intended: its meaning doesn’t quite fit, and its short-lived currency was 400 years ago.
The new sooth may have been formed by unconscious analogy with any one or several of the comparable pairs that feature voiced/voiceless th, such as bathe/bath, breathe/breath, clothe/cloth, loathe/loath, swathe/swath.
This presentation (PDF, p. 4) describes such differences as “consonant modification”, falling under “non-concatenative morphology”, but there may be a more straightforward way to consider or describe the example I’ve quoted.
Readers: Have you ever used or seen this sense of sooth before?
And if the –e in soothe and related words is not an affix, is it just a residual mark of lost inflections from Old English, or how best might it be analysed?