Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Article excerpt

A cheerful looking and sounding woman called Hilary Jolly has just won a competition to write the first hymn to be sung in St Paul's in the year 2000. Hymns have different rules from other poems by which to be judged. Singability is all.

Mrs Jolly's hymn is written to the same metre as `Gaily into Ruislip Gardens/Runs the red electric train'. Stanza two starts: `Bounty of two thousand harvests,/Beauty of two thousand springs:/ He who framed the times and seasons/ Has vouchsafed us greater things.'

That is true, but I was surprised by the word vouchsafed. I do not think I have ever heard anyone say it, spontaneously, I mean. It seems like a word made to be used only in church. Indeed, many of the earliest recorded examples of its use are churchy. `Lord, vouchesaaf,' said the terrible Wycliffe in a sermon in the late 14th century, `to kepe us this day withouten synne.'

The word used to come in two parts: vouch, in the sense 'warrant', and safe. Sometimes it was safe vouch; sometimes other words came in the middle. At first, when it was in the past tense, the termination went on the vouch, thus: vouchedsafe. There must have been a borderline period when people were not sure whether to put the suffix -ed on the vouch or on the safe, just as we sometimes have trouble now with words like tablespoonfuls or bucketsful. …

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