The unbelievable sooth

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?

10 Responses to The unbelievable sooth

  1. @Sciamannata says:

    I suspect this “sooth” may be formed by removing -ing from “soothing”. That would be your suffix. Plausible?

  2. Stan says:

    Soothingsooth seems plausible to me, Sciamannata. In my first draft, I mentioned this as a possible origin, but I removed it at the editing stage. Tsk! I’m still curious about it, though. I’d say soothe is a more likely source, but it might of course be both, or neither, or one or both plus others.

  3. Deirdre says:

    It’s an interesting one – I quite like it. Evocative.

  4. Robert says:

    I’m with Sciammanta. Speaking English as a second language, it only seems logical to substantivate soothing into sooth. Of course, that’s disregarding the fact working with logic works seldom (seldomly?) at best when dealing with language. Especially if it’s English. Thanks for the post, Stan, quite enlightening as usual.

  5. johnwcowan says:

    I agree with the back-formation analysis.

    Originally, voiced th, like all voiced fricatives in English, was not a separate phoneme but merely an automatic consequence of placing a (voiceless) fricative between vowels. In Middle English breth (n.) and brethen (v.), the first had voiceless th and the second voiced, as they still do today. In the decay of inflectional endings leading up to the disappearance of all final es, the vast majority of verbs made from nouns by adding an ending became identical in form to the underlying noun.

    However, by this time voiced and voiceless th had become separate phonemes, and the distinction was maintained in these cases. The -e was retained in the spelling as a sign of this. The noun and verb mouth are another instance, but in this case for no particular reason the -e of the verb was not retained: the more logical spelling mouthe appears sporadically from the 16th century onwards, but did not become part of the standard.

    The vowel shifts are another story. Breath underwent irregular shortening of its ea vowel, thus falling into the group with death, dead, bread, dread, deaf putting them in the DRESS lexical set. But most words with ea, like beam, bean, leaf, please, remained long and were transformed by the Great Vowel Shift into the FLEECE lexical set. A few oddballs such as great, steak, break, yea resisted the GVS or were borrowed into the standard from unaffected dialects like older Hiberno-English.

    Here’s Dr. Johnson explaining to Boswell why he didn’t give pronunciations in his dictionary (other than marking stress): “When I published the Plan for my Dictionary, Lord Chesterfield told me that the word great should be pronounced so as to rhyme to state; and Sir William Yonge sent me word that it should be pronounced so as to rhyme to seat, and that none but an Irishman would pronounce it grait. Now here were two men of the highest rank, the one, the best speaker in the House of Lords, the other, the best speaker in the House of Commons, differing entirely.”

  6. Stan says:

    Deirdre: Yes, I like it too. I’d be surprised if it hasn’t occurred before, but I’m calling this a first usage until I hear otherwise!

    Robert: Thanks for your thoughts. That’s another vote for soothing as a source. If you mean formal logic, then I agree; language has its own kinds of logic. (Seldom doesn’t need the -ly, though it’s a variant that’s occasionally seen.)

    John: That’s very helpful, thank you, and I love the anecdote from Dr Johnson. So my intuition was broadly correct as regards the status of the -e. I wondered about mouth, since I noticed the phonetic difference but couldn’t tell why it hadn’t retained the -e in its standard spelling.

    Your thoughtful discussion of the diverging sounds of ea leads me to think I should write about how this relates to Hiberno-English, the vernacular of which kept the old “ay” sound in many cases, as in “a cup of tay”, or the “salt say water” of Finnegans Wake.

  7. Jonathon says:

    I’ve never encountered that use of sooth before, but I kind of like it.

  8. Never seen sooth before. I do like it though

  9. wisewebwoman says:

    Is the word “soother” still used in Ireland? Here (in Canada) it is “pacifier”.
    That popped when I was reading the wonderful sentence. Though interestingly enough “sooth” does not look odd to me at all.

  10. Stan says:

    Jonathon: Though there’s no real need for it, I think it’s somehow fitting that this usage should arise.

    Jams: Neologisms more usually provoke distaste and even disgust. I’m glad others seem to like this one.

    WWW: Yes, I still hear soother, though pacifier appears to be growing in popularity – maybe through the influence of American English. Sooth as used above is already settling right in, by the look of it.

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