unbeknown(st)

I started to write a long post this morning, but have been undone by my inability to produce a sentence tree that I can post on Blogger. I was hoping to make one in MS-Word, then find a way to export it as a .gif or other picture file. (Saving the Word file as html didn't preserve all the drawing features.) If one of you more tech-savvy folk can (and has the time to) give some advice on that problem, please drop me an e-mail. (I'm on a Mac, if it matters.) [Update: I've received many suggestions now, and will try one or some of them. Thanks!!]

So, in place of the big, long grammatical post, here's a little quickie, inspired by reading the following line in the Weekend magazine in today's Guardian:
She believes, tragically, that she's done this unbeknown to him. (from 'What Women Don't Understand about Men' by Anonymous, a column whose raison d'ĂȘtre has never been evident to me)
This was the second time in the past month or so that I've read unbeknown to [someone]. The first time, I thought it was an error, because as an AmE native, I'm used to the phrase being unbeknownst to [someone]. (The ever-mysterious, mostly AmE spell-checker on Blogger likes only unbeknown. But it also doesn't recogni{s/z}e blog--which takes it beyond mysterious to pathetic.)

John Algeo discusses this phrase in his book British or American English? Searching the Cambridge International Corpus, he found 3.0 instances of unbeknown but only 0.9 instances of unbeknownst per ten million words in BrE texts. On the other hand, he found 4.1 per ten million of unbeknownst and only 1.0/10,000,000 of unbeknown in AmE texts.

Unbeknownst has shadowy beginnings. It was originally 'colloquial and dialectal' (OED), but has increased in commonality (versus unbeknown) since the 19th century. While unbeknown is the negated form of the archaic term beknown (= modern-day known), the OED has no entry for the non-negated form beknownst. These days, it seems to be used as a back-formation from unbeknownst:
Only beknownst to me, however, was the fact that my threats were idle. [Center for Conflict Resolution, Abilene Christian University]

Little beknownst to the modern day assembler of packaged components is that somewhere buried deep in the recesses of these objects are the well chosen instructions to order and index data. [from a post on TutorialAdvisor.com]
(Using such usually-negated words without their negative prefixes is a fertile area for word-play, as in this little essay.) Interestingly (well, if you're me, it's interesting, at least), both of these non-negated examples have not-exactly-positive modifiers: only and little. One might say that modern-day beknown(st) carries with it some negative semantic prosody--i.e. 'the way in which certain seemingly neutral words can come to carry positive or negative associations through frequently occurring with particular collocations' (Wikipedia).

13 comments

  1. The easiest way for you to get a tree in a graphical format is to use phpSyntaxTree (http://ironcreek.net/phpsyntaxtree/). It doesn't have all the bells & whistles, but it's quite useful.

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  2. I am very surprised for two reasons:

    (1) I'm Irish and would always use unbeknownst; the few times I've seen unbeknown I assumed it was an Americanism

    (2) The U.S.-British contrast in this case is the opposite of the pairs while/whilst, among/amongst, amid/amidst, where the -st form is rarer in America than Britain.

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  3. Thanks Bridget--I've been given several possible solutions to my problem now--so thanks everyone!

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  4. As a Scottish BrE speaker I, like Mollymooly, have only ever used unbeknownst, and I find unbeknown looks and feels wrong, and in fact I'm not sure I have ever seen it before this post. It would seem odd for AmE to hasve the more trickily pronounced version and BrE the less, as this is surely a reversal of the usual situation, for instance the way AmE speakers (and writers, sometimes) seem to be in the process of abolishing the past participle form, and say "tan" where we would say "tanned" and many many other examples (skim milk instead of skimmed milk is another that springs to mind). Then there are respitory and vetinary; never spelt that way but almost always pronounced so.

    So it seems out of the usual order for AmE to prefer unbeknownst (which I find tricky to pronounce) to unbeknown.

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  5. Except that AmE still says gotten where BrE says got, uses the subjunctive more widely than BrE does, says around where BrE says round, etc. It's easy to come up with examples of AmE forms being the longer, older, more complex forms than the BrE forms...so the stereotype that AmE is a 'simpler' or 'more abbreviated' dialect is just a stereotype, not a fact. But that's the stereotype that a lot of people have (and a major stereotype that I'm trying to fight here!)

    It's not really surprising if IrE and ScE have a similar form to AmE. America was settled by immigrants from all over the British Isles, and they brought their dialectal forms with them--AmE is not derived from modern-day 'standard' BrE. (There's also the possibility that IrE and ScE speakers have been affected by the prevalence of the -st in AmE, but we have no particular evidence that that's what's happened here either.)

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  6. Yes but I wasn't saying it was "simpler" or "abbreviated," just easier to pronounce: neither thusly, nor gotten, nor any of Lynne's other examples, was at all more difficult to pronounce than the BrE equivalents, whereas "unbeknownst" and participial forms are or tend to be, which was the point I was making. Not at all trying to put AmE down in any way, nor Ams themselves! (By the way I would add "transportation" for "transport" to the list). If anything, AmE is just recognis/zing in the written form what is happening anyway in spoken BrE but has not yet been acknowledged in the written language over here.

    I apologis/ze if I appeared to be attacking AmE in a stereotypical way. It was certainly neither my intention nor my own impression of what I had said.

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  7. Sorry to go on the defensive (or maybe offensive), Cameron!

    But I have to disagree that gotten is as easy to pronounce as got. It has an additional syllable, which means it takes more effort to say. (This reminds me of my historical linguistics professor in (AmE) grad school, who used to point out that if language change was just motivated by making things easier to say, all words would now be pronounced 'uh'.)

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  8. It's funny, but I (American) and Cameron (Scot--or should that be Scots?) have the same perspective on this though we're on opposite sides of the Atlantic. I, too, had never seen or heard unbeknown before reading this post! (Or if I did, I dismissed it as a mistake.)

    If I were to make a statement of simple fact, I'd use unknown. If I were trying to be ironic or funny, I would perhaps use unbeknownst. But UNBEKNOWN??? That just feels strange in my mouth.

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  9. This is of course off topic, but I'm reminded of the common misspelling of 'renown' as 'reknown' - I guess it's a sorta eggcorn.

    (I (Dane) only new the -st version. But I also find myself having to supress the urge to say 'gotten', so my vocabulary is rather a hodgepodge.)

    As for backformations I'm very fond of 'couth'.

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  10. OK, so I'm coming in three and a half years late to this discussion (your fault Lynne for linking to it again from Twitter), but I notice you've had comments from Scots and Irish but not from anyone English.

    How old and/or accurate are John Algeo's figures? Because I'd never think of using "unbeknown". I did a quite Google search in .ac.uk sites - hardly scientific but maybe indicative. It turns up more than twice as many "unbeknownst" as it does "unbeknown".

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  11. The CIC data is from sources dated late-1980s to 2000.

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  12. Six years on and beknownst is all around me!

    I am most surprised by the commentators that say something like "Unbeknown! An abomination! It is unbeknownst" or possibly "Unbeknownst! An abomination! It is unbeknown". I wonder whether 'unknown' is unknown to them or abominable to an even greater degree.

    I've never been beknown or beknownst to use any of these over-heavy words with their single or double or triple prefix and suffix redundancy. For me, if something isn't known then it's unknown. And it's always been like that for me (BrE, London but travelled, 72). When I first noticed unbeknownst popping up frequently in the writing and speech of ordinary BrE speakers (seems about a decade or so ago to me) I thought it was an archaism fashionable in some circles (I suspected AmE) that was being picked up by wannabe sophisticates - or maybe some weird kind of hypercorrection. I didn't believe it would survive. Likewise its cousin whilst and others in the -st family. How wrong I was! Surely if there are two (close) words, one that takes more effort to say and write than the other, then the language should gravitate to the easier of the two - eg whom, who; veterinarian, vet (yes, that's a word and its abbreviation, but I don't have all day to think of purer examples).

    Strange that the language can develop in two directions simultaneously. It is becoming shorter (eg vet), more direct and less formal (eg who as above, I have the honour, sir, etc vs Yours sincerely / Regards / Best) and less flowery (eg ubiquitous Hi! and the letter sign-offs), and incorporating abbrevs as words (noob, awks). But at the same time it is regressing to earlier, more flowery -st forms. I hesitate to call it a peeve because I don't go on about it, but I am so attuned to such things now that I experience a little spark of annoyance when I hear any of the -st family of archaisms (not so much when I read them). And that seems to be far more often in speech than the cumulative 3.9 per ten million that the stats show. I think I probably feel it's vandalism to litter the language with such unnecessary and - more to the point - archaic-sounding fripperies, especially in a language that has efficiently discarded most of its inflections and gender features. Less is more.

    I have read somewhere some time ago that when a language 'loses' in one area it 'gains' in another. So AmE and IrE both tend not to distinguish between t and d (flapping) but pronounce all rs (are rhotic). If I remember correctly the idea is that there is a balancing act between what's easiest for the speaker and what's easiest for the hearer. But then where in AmE is the hearer's compensation for the yod-dropping that leads to 'after do consideration' and 'without undo delay' - in writing as well as in speech, I should say? It's probably a nonsense theory, but sometimes the thought is soothing.

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Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)