Something Wicked This Way Comes

Okay, this is going to be the nerdiest post I’ve ever written and I’m embarrassed to tell you that I’ve already done an hour’s worth of research on this, before turning to you for help.

For folks who are not nerds, let me explain a little how this process went.  Last night, a non-nerd called me from his sick bed and demanded an explaination for why some words, when they end in “ked” are pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable–like “I peeked around the corner”–and other words, sometimes even the same word, is pronounced with the emphasis on the “ked”–like “The child is looking peeked and has a fever.”

I heard the “k” sound and immediatedly suspected that this had something to do with Middle or Old English words.  So, we tried to decide if it’s when words with etymological roots in Middle or Old English that can be verbs and end in the “k” sound (or, even a hard “ch”) are made past tense and then that past tense is used as an adjective.  So, could you say, for instance, that a piece of wood that you bent has been crooked (crukd), resulting in the piece of wood being crooked (cruked)?  Is it an aural clue that an Old English-descended word is being used as an adjective instead of a past-tense verb?

Clearly, there’s an answer to this, which I set out to find on the internet this morning by looking at all of the “ked” words I could think of.

And I came across “wretched.”  And, holy shit!  If this doesn’t give you an insight into the human condition, I just don’t know what will.

Get this:


O.E. wrecca “wretch, stranger, exile,” from P.Gmc. *wrakjan (cf. O.S. wrekkio, O.H.G. reckeo “a banished person, exile,” Ger. recke “renowned warrior, hero”), related to O.E. wreccan “to drive out, punish” (see wreak). Sense of “vile, despicable person” developed in O.E., reflecting the sorry state of the outcast, as presented in much of Anglo-Saxon verse (e.g. “The Wanderer”). A Ger. word for “misery” is Elend, from O.H.G. elilenti “sojourn in a foreign land, exile.”

Okay, we see what we’d expect to see if our “ked” hypothesis is true.  Wretch has its roots in Old English.  But that’s not what the nerd in me got caught up on.

No.  I have been utterly distracted by the fact that wretch comes to us from reckeo and that the word has a hint of meaning both an exile and a hero.  I mean, come on, folks!  If you are a nerd, and I know some of you are, did you not just have the biggest holy shit moment?  Do you not want to hold that in your head just a little bit, roll it around in your brain and see what kind of stuff sticks to it?

Here’s what I thought about?

I thought about Odysseus coming home after being gone 20 years and how he was both the returning hero and the miserable outcast.  Which made me think about our own service people, who will be returning heros (knock on wood), but also separated from the general population just by what they’ve been through.

But I also thought that it was interesting that in Old English, wrecca has both the sense of exile and adventurer.  Recke just means hero.  And going back even farther, to our friend Old Norse, rekkr just means man.

So, can we see, through the changing meaning of this word, a change in attitudes towards the man who travels?  In its oldest state, the man who travels is just that–a man, traveling being just a fundimental componant of the state of being a man.  And then we see that the man who travels is a hero and adventurer.  But as the Germanic language folks start to settle in to villages and towns, the word starts to take on its current meaning–that the man who has to travel to strange places isn’t fortunate, he’s miserable.

I don’t know.  It just made me wonder.

It made me think about Odin and Thor, because, in the Lore, they’re regularly wandering and, I think, we see, just in the recounting of their travels, that there’s some really ambiguous feelings about the traveller.  On the one hand, you have the beloved (ooo, there’s a word that does it that doesn’t have the ‘k’ sound!  Yet, you can be beloved and beloved.) Thor who goes out in the wider world, but his purpose is clear.  He’s just going out to kill the folks who are different than him.

But Odin?  Yeah, sometimes he’s killing folks who are different than him.  Sometimes, though, he’s killing the folks who are on his side.  He’s fucking whoever lets him in her bed, regardless of where she’s from or what group of beings she’s a part of.  He’s gaining knowledge and learning customs from strange people that even makes whether he’s still a man suspect.

I don’t know.  It just gave me so much to think about this morning.

And “wicked“?  What a cool, cool word.

[Origin: 1225–75; ME wikked, equiv. to wikke bad (repr. adj. use of OE wicca wizard; cf. witch) + -ed -ed3]

See that?  How wicked is basically, literally, the state of being like a witch? (Check out the etymology on that word, for more cool fun!)

Dang, I love that so much, just rooting around in the etymology of words, getting that feeling that, when you open your mouth to talk, that you are speaking a haunted language, that each word has trailing behind it phantoms of old meaning, each whispering their histories through you.

It makes me think that the poet’s job is akin to fishing, that feelings and deep knowledge are fish and each word a net designed to capture just that one kind of thing that, when words are just used ordinarily… It’s like this.  Ordinarily, when we use words, it’s like one fishing line after another going down and picking up the precice meaning we want to get across to our readers.  Sometimes there’s a problem because we can’t decide what kind of fish it is there on the hook.  But, in general, we operate on a one-to-one corrilation.  I say this: I mean this.

Poetry, though, to me, when done well, is like casting net after net.  A word has a meaning, but from there, it spreads out and out.  You could, with a poem, spend a half an hour looking at just the word “wicked,” for instance, and trying to keep in your mind that feeling of a wide net of meaning and history so that when you move on to “this” and “way” and “comes,” you feel like you’re wringing every ounce of that poem out, getting at everything it has to offer.

Words, words, words.  I love them.  I feel blessed to (oh, there’s another one.  I feel blessed, but I have blessed assurance that Jesus is mine) have them, my magic charms, to carry with me and to share with you.

But here’s the thing.  One of you must know.  What is with the “ked” words?  A name for it?  A rule that sometimes holds true?

15 thoughts on “Something Wicked This Way Comes

  1. Leave it to you. Classic example of your ADD. Also, when I ask you what time it is, please don’t tell me how to build a watch.

    I simply want to know, why is ok to say peaked as, well, peaked, and other times say pee-kid? Or mark, and mark-ked?

    You and your woo woo wicked witchiness. It was simple question. If you cannot answer it, I’ll patiently wait for NM, Bridgett, or Rachel.

    I’d have included Church Secretary on that list, but i know he is busy today having his likeness sculpted into a stone statue.

    Why yes, I am playa-hating, you hottie.

  2. I don’t know about the “ked” words, but I love the origin of “wretched”. It’s interesting that the word “bandit” has its origin in the Italian for “exiled” too – it has that same sense that they are wretched for having been cast out, but a little bit heroic for having to fend for themselves.

  3. Interesting, but what does it say about me that when I read:

    why some words, when they end in “ked”

    The first word that popped into my mind was “naked?”

  4. Oo! I know this one!

    The original spelling of words like “peaked” (that’s the word that means you’re not feeling well, not “peeked” – easy mistake to make) and “wicked”, “wretched”, etc, were as such: wick’d, wretch’d, etc.

    If you’ll notice, the root words are always nouns. Add the apostrophe+d, and they become adjectives. The “e” just took the place of the apostrophe, but the stress on the second syllable remained.

    It IS Olde English, though, you’re right about that part. If you look at some of Shakespeare’s work, in particular, you see those damned apostrophe+d words EVERYWHERE. Or damn’d. Hah.

  5. Except that the apostrophe was written to stand for a spoken sound — sound always comes before spelling in language, by definition. The apostrophe was used to represent the schwa sound. But the pronunciation preceeded it.

  6. Thanks, Aunt B. Now I know I’m not the only one who reads the etymology of words I look up, nor am I the only one who can be entertained by gliding through a dictionary. If you are a nerd, we are nerds together.

    Mack, if someone’s going to make a statue of me, I’ll just tell them to use the calendar picture ’cause I don’t look like that no more.

  7. Thoreau once said that “Language is fossil poetry,” and your study of “wretched” here is such a good example of that. I have an assignment in my intro to poetry class where I make students look up a word in a poem in the OED and explore how its etymology and multiple definitions help open up the meaning of the poem for them. It’s fun, and it always gets the word worm-y students addicted to the OED.

  8. Mr. Mack is now sad he never took Intro To Poetry.

    Ok, not really.

    Church Secretary, I can hear hearts breaking from Nashville to Elkin. Somehow, this makes me happy.

  9. Apparently, I should have taken Intro to Geography, cuz then I would have properly placed Elkin in Kentucky. Elgin, however, is located in Illinois.

    I actually thought about using a mulligan here, by claiming it was a typo.

  10. Dispatch from the Grammar Hotel:

    Instead of
    “like ‘The child is looking peeked and has a fever’ “,

    the parent would actually have peeked at the thermometer to determine whether the child looked peaked because s/he had a fever, but was piqued to find that the thermometer was not functioning properly.

    This has just piqued me repeatedly as I have peeked at the blogs of so many brilliant writers in the blogosphere who have not yet peaked.

    So perhaps I’m just jealous.

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