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Blessed Are the Learned,
Or, The Erratic Behavior of -ED

By Anatoly Liberman

It does not surprise us that naked and wretched
do not rhyme with raked and etched. But the difference between learned
in I have learned a lot in this course and I have seldom met such a learned
is disturbing. In native words and in many borrowings, English has
lost most of its unstressed vowels; hence verbs and nouns like speaks
and days are monosyllabic (in the past, e stood between the root
and s) and adjectives have no plural (new book ~ new books). When
e appears in spelling, as in asked, saved, combed, it is no
longer sounded and is good only for confusing foreigners. The main regularity
in the pronunciation of –ed is clear at once: learned is
monosyllabic when it is the past tense or the past participle of the verb learn
(I learned, I have learned; a competing form of this learned
is learnt, in which the spelling is phonetic) but disyllabic when it is an
adjective (a learned man). The question is what caused the distinction.

English is rather consistent in differentiating he has
aged ~ an aged man,
she is blessed with excellent health ~
a blessed woman, I hate the way you ragged me ~ ragged
However, in cursed enemy both pronunciations of cursed are possible,
and the same holds even for accursed and beloved (“even,” because
both are adjectives and should not have a monosyllabic option; too bad,
language does not ask the opinion of learned people before making its choices).
The difference between two variants of words like aged cannot be
accounted for by the ease of pronunciation. First, ease is a vague concept: in
retrospect, anything acquired while mastering our mother tongue seems “easy”;
the rest is usually “hard.” (Only in dreaded, hated, etc., the loss of e
would have resulted in the loss of a syllable, but such a trifle may not have
necessarily prevented the change.) Second, no one experiences any trouble in
saying insipid, lucid, rocket, crooked, crabbed alongside sipped,
(as in used to), rocked, grabbed, and dozens of other
similar words. That is why attempts to ascribe the difference between aged
~ aged,
blessed ~ blessed, and their likes to sentence
rhythm do no go far. We can only say that English has a tendency to keep
adjectives and verbal forms apart, but, as always, some forms have fallen
through the cracks.

The words that have always been adjectives are regularly
disyllabic. Some of them have had an adventurous history. The Old English
ancestor of wretch meant “exile” and by implication, “a miserable or despicable
person.” Several poems written at that time describe the horrors of being an
exile. It is not only solitude and the perils of being a stranger in a strange
land that haunted an outcast. Someone who was outlawed would lose the
protection of one’s tribe (clan, family) and become utterly defenseless. The
original meaning of the verb wreak was “drive away, dispel; avenge”; its
German cognate still means “wreak vengeance.” Wreak is allied to wretch.
The modern senses of wretched require no further explanation. It can
only be added that the meaning of German Recke, a cognate of wretch, developed
into “knight errant,” that is, a solitary man, but a dignified figure
commanding respect, a hero of chivalric literature—not at all a wretch.

Some details in the history of wicked are unclear.
Middle English had only wicke. It is identical with either the noun wicce
“witch” (from wicca) or Old English wicci “wicked,” an adjective
recorded a single time (1154). Wicked surfaced in texts in 1275 and
looks like a past participle meaning “rendered evil,” but is probably an
adjective like wretched. At a certain stage, it must have merged with
adjectives ending in -ed and past participles, but we do not know why
and how it happened. There is historical justice in the fact that words
meaning “evil” try to hide their past—that is, if we look on words as living
creatures obeying our rules of morality. (Those disappointed in the obscurity
of wicked should probably not be comforted by the fact that wicket
is even more obscure. Fortunately, our subject today is adjectives, not

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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