Helpmeet, Or Can Stillborn Words Prosper?
The story of helpmeet has been told many times, but perhaps something in my short essay will be new to our readers. In the Authorized Version of the Bible, we read: “And the Lord God said, it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” The phrase meet for him is supplied with the following marginal note: “Heb. As before him.” The Hebrew word for help (its old-fashioned pronunciation is approximately a-z-er) has a meaning slightly different from the one the context of Gen. II: 18 suggests to the modern reader because it is regularly used in addressing God in the Psalms (in which too “help” is the gloss). Psalm XXVII: 9, “Hide not thy face far from me; …thou hast been my help….” Perhaps the most colorful example occurs in LXX: 5, “…O God: thou art my help and my deliverer; O Lord, make no tarrying.” Obviously, help in the story of how Eve was created does not mean “servant” or “assistant,” as in the advertisement: “Help wanted.”
Meet “fit, suitable” is an obsolete adjective. It has nothing to do with the verb meet “encounter” but shares the root with mete in the equally archaic collocation mete out and the noun meat. Both refer to measuring: mete (out) does so directly (compare German messen “to measure”), meat indirectly (the noun designated “portion of food,” and the ancient sense of meat “food” has been retained in the idiom meat and drink and in compounds like sweetmeats). Thus, with the emergence of Eve, Adam acquired someone on whose love and help he could depend, a companion, a partner “measured out” for him. The Authorized Version gives a marginal note to this place because the Hebrew phrase corresponding to the conjunction like is hard to render in English, but “help” does not seem to have caused the translators any problems. The Vulgate text (in Latin) has adiutorium similem sibi (adiutorium “help, assistance; support”).
As time went on, but already in the 17th century, printers began to hyphenate help-meet in the Biblical verse, though the reason for this practice is not clear: no one could have been in doubt as to the meaning of the adjective meet. The result was that help-meet and helpmeet (without a hyphen) was understood as a single unit and for him appeared redundant. The compound helpmeet came into being. Wordsworth and Tennyson used it, and the newcomer began to share “the semantic space” with its synonym helpmate. This part of the story can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and in every book that deals with the origin of helpmeet. James Murray, the first editor of the OED, did not conceal his contempt for the fools who coined a useless word. The Century Dictionary echoes Murray: “An absurd compound, taken as equivalent to helpmate….”
We have enjoyed the OED so long that we cannot imagine life without it. A chance remark in a correspondence to Notes and Queries brought forth a lively, tinged with acerbity, though invariably polite, exchange that would hardly be possible in our newspapers and magazines. Our word columns, to the extent that they still exist, devote some space to slang and usage, but at the end of the 19th century educated Englishmen found it interesting to argue endlessly over whether helpmate had been derived from helpmeet or whether the process had gone in the opposite direction.
The polemic started in 1898, and opinions, as always, were divided. The phrase meet help (that is, “appropriate help”) was cited, Wordsworth and Tennyson were quoted to prove the legitimacy of helpmeet (it is astounding how well people remembered their favorite poets), the question about helpmeet being applicable only to the wife or also to the husband produced several noble statements about the high status of the first woman in Paradise, the meaning of mate (as in playmate versus helpmate) was pondered, and the experience of great authors was declared to have greater weight than the evidence of dictionaries. But the basic question, which word appeared in English first (helpmate or helpmeet) remained unanswered. Once again, sides were taken and arguments put forward in defense of each view. None of it would have been worth recalling, but for the dramatic denouement. In the middle of the polemic, the section Heel—Hod of the OED was published, and anyone could see that help-meet first occurred in Dryden (1673), and helpmate in 1715. Moreover, it became clear that helpmeet achieved full recognition only in the 19th century. The OED suggested that helpmate might have experienced the influence of helpmeet. Now nothing was left to talk about, and one of the proponents of the wrong opinion withdrew his considerations in a footnote. What a stroke of luck that most of us were not born before the appearance of the Heel—Hod section!
Thus, helpmeet is the product of ignorance, an “absurd” coinage. Today neither helpmate nor helpmeet, let alone the short-lived helpfellow, seems to be current, but Wordsworth and Tennyson used helpmeet. Should we pity their inadequate mastery of English? We’d rather not. Language constantly delivers freaks, and if the speakers accept them, they begin to look like well-formed creatures. In usage, everything is right that the majority considers right, which does not mean that every novelty is beautiful.
By way of conclusion, I would like to recapitulate the story of another monster that has prospered beyond the wildest expectation of its chance inventors. This story has also been told countless times, but repetition does not detract from its charm. In one of his letters, Cicero used the word sittybas (which is the accusative plural of Latin, actually Greek, sittyba “label, title slip”; stress on -ty-). In an English 15th-century edition of Cicero, sittybas appeared as syllabos, with three misprints. To ennoble the misbegotten noun, it was respelled in Greek with the spurious ending -os and returned to Latin. This is how syllabus was born, and, once surrounded by other venerable -us words, it had to join the Latin second declension; hence the plural syllabi, which our manuals and spellcheckers treat with disapproval, as though the form syllabuses can make restitution for a misprint going back to 1470. Such is the way of a good deal of linguistic flesh. People “corrupt” and “pervert” words, shed endings, merge declensions and conjugations. The entire history of language is an epic of “corruption” and “decay” if every older stage is believed to be loftier than the next one, more or less by definition. Some scholars call change in grammar and the vitality of ill-conceived words progress, others bewail it. Take a meet course, get a syllabus, and learn all about it. If you have trouble, find a disinterested helpmeet. No rib is too high a price for gaining knowledge.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”