In Praise of an Older Word, Alas

by G. Kim Blank (June 2012)

Too many: an abundance, a multitude, a myriad, a legion, a slew; stacks, scads, scores, hordes, loads, droves, masses, oodles; a plethora, a profusion, an excess, an oversupply, a superabundance, a surfeit, a glut; more than you can shake a stick at.

Too many English words, that is—with many of them capable of saying the same thing differently. Our language at times seems synonym-obsessive—or compulsive—or both. Yet there are always new words and one-offs popping up to jockey for space in our neocortex, words like “tweeting,” in the sense of communicating via that already banal form of micro-blogging, Twitter. In typical English fashion, “tweeting” cunningly tweaks an established word. Of course “micro-blogging” is itself recent, marrying a dependable old Greek word—micros—with a new catchy one, “blog.” The latter is a smart contraction of  “web”+“log,” with “web,” from the old Germanic word for weaving (which now also refers to those billions of linked pages on the Internet), and “log” from the Greek logos, picking up notions of reckoning and recording.

Ah, English. Powerful it is.

But in its restless ability to soak up old and foreign languages, and to create words, English has left something like fifty thousand words stuck in the past or marginally in circulation. Many, too, undergo restyling to suit the times; this in fact might tell us something when we consider a word over its longer history of usage. How is it restyled? Can an old word teach us new tricks, perhaps tell us something about our own era by the way we use it? Then there is just the plain pleasure of exploring a word for its own sake; after all, words are necessarily “telling.”

Take the word “alas,” one of those words that seems to have been almost left behind, or at least has the negative potential to get left behind. According to that wonderfully diverting online tool, Ngram, the popularity of “alas” in written usage spiked wildly in the second half of the seventeenth century. It has steadily declined ever since, though recently there seems to have been a slight but clear upturn. It appears, then, to have repossessed some whiff of its former power, but not because it is retro; it is too old for that, so much so that, rather, it signifies eccentricity rather than coolness. Perhaps, too, it dawdles in linguistic limbo because it has not spawned a clear, modern synonym, or that, more encouragingly, it remains surprisingly versatile. But is it used in the same way?

The 1600s offer too many instances of the word’s use to even begin to fully represent its power and diversity—in plays, poems, essays, and, very frequently, in religious writing. For one example out of thousands, take Thomas Brooks’ London’s Lamentations, published in 1670, and written to explain why, four years earlier, London was reduced to a “ruinous heap” via the Great Fire. As Brooks reasons, the cause was sin, and fire being one of God’s preferred punishments, well, what choice did He really have; writes Brooks,

When God appears in flames of fire, devouring and destroying all before him, then the proudest and the stoutest atheists in the world will confess that there is a God—yes, then they will bow and tremble under a sense of the sovereignty of God.

Forget, for the moment, the reasoning here (though even late Christopher Hitchens might at least admire Brooks’ rhetorical commitment to flush out atheists). Brooks uses the word “alas” frequently in his book, including one sentence, notable for its shortness, simplicity, and summative power; in the context of the Great Fire and London’s iniquitous ways, he writes, “Alas poor London.”

But again, why the massive decline in usage of “alas” since then? Is there anything wrong with the word? There shouldn’t be. It’s compact, easy to remember, and is capable of adding understated verbal drama. Say the following: “I once believed science would solve our problems.” Now say, “Alas, I once believed science would solve our problems.” Now you mean something more. An admission of naivety, tinged with gloom, is suddenly unmistakable.

Being artful, “alas” can be slipped in just about anywhere. Take a sentence that, through overuse, has squandered both its cultural and interpersonal clout: “I love you.” Watch it morph and gain by inserting “alas” in various places. “Alas, I love you” might suggest some reluctance or giving-in by the speaker. “I love you, alas” hints that there is no hope but to love the addressee. “I, alas, love you”—this could put the emphasis on the realization by the speaker of love for the addressee, coloured by hopelessness or fatalism. “I love, alas, you” appears to signal that others may have been in the game. All of this makes saying the bare “I love you” not just pedestrian but potentially ambiguous, and therefore possibly solicitous of a snarky response: “So what exactly do you mean by that?”

Perhaps the word is somewhat pooped, which, given that it derives from the Latin word for “weary” (lassus), is fitting. In fact, when voiced, “alas” mimics an expiring breath. It wouldn’t be a bad word to save for one’s final deathbed utterance, though admittedly it is not as abstruse or fetching as “Rosebud.”

Unlike other dated signaling words like “hark,” which, with its cold, barfy-sounding single syllable, is limited to signifying listening, the agility of “alas” potentially makes it a word for all seasons. Besides weariness, it can bear the expressive burden of exasperation, pity, sorrow, regret, enthusiasm, concern, grief, sadness, and reluctance. It can shrewdly personalize a basic declarative statement—for example, “The Middle East is troubled, alas”—so that attitude is added to cold fact.

Technically, “alas” is an interjection, a noun that expresses a speaker’s emotion. It is also a “sentence word”; that is, like a curse word, it can stand alone as a sentence. But here’s the word’s serviceable strength: it is not a curse word, yet as a semantic multi-tasker it can act as one. “Alas! Another parking ticket!”

The word’s versatility as employed by masters of the language might offer clues about the word’s power and whether it is a candidate for more serious recall. This also may provide a kind of baseline for and contextualization of its more limited contemporary use.

Take Geoffrey Chaucer, who, with his outrageously sparkling characterizations and stories in The Canterbury Tales, in a certain way invents the English literary tradition while consolidating a significant amount of vocabulary, albeit via Middle English. Writing in the 14th-century in the vernacular (itself a revolutionary act), Chaucer uses “alas” almost 200 times in the Tales. His characters (the pilgrims)—who come from every social class, from the high, virtuous Knight to the lowly, lewd Miller—use the word with remarkable range and tone. For example, in the Miller’s tale, one character, after realizing he is the brunt of a joke in mistakenly doing some literal arse-kissing, utters “alas” repeatedly shortly thereafter, and he does so with disgust, regret, and anger: then, after wiping his mouth with just anything he can find, including dirt, straw, and woodchips, he continues with the word: “Allas . . . allas, I ne hadde y-bleynt!” [Alas . . . alas that I didn’t turn aside!]. The misplaced revenge he takes (involving, unfortunately, more arse as well as a hot poker), also solicits more “alas” in calls for help.

Then there’s Lord Byron, that famous philandering 19th-century Romantic poet with a penchant for cousins and both genders. He writes, “Alas, the love of women! It is known to be a lovely and a fearful thing.” Byron admits to both the wonderful feeling of loving women and to a necessary apprehension. “Alas” supplies a whimsical and a personal sensibility, making it a stealthy observation, as if to say, I can’t live with them and I can’t live without them—and in Byron’s case, he certainly couldn’t do either consistently.

Slightly closer our own time, T. S. Eliot uses the word’s strong, declarative capacity in the opening of his 1925 poem, “The Hollow Men”:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

Here, in one of the most memorable moments in modernist literature, the word as a stand-alone sentence carries the weight of desperation and resignation—that of a whole age, no less.

Geoffrey Hill, present Professor of Poetry at Oxford (a very good gig), in a 2000 interview said, “Not a day passes without my thinking of the dead of my own family, and my pride in them, and my gratitude to them, which alas I did not think to express as I should have done while they were alive.” Hill, a deeply complex and uncompromising thinker, uses “alas” to capture his private regret and sorrow. Neither the word nor the feeling is ducked.

Then there’s the most famous “alas” of all, and here we have to go back to the word’s heyday in the 1600’s to witness its exceptional use. Picture a graveyard and a couple of cheeky gravediggers at work; one leaves. Enter a couple of passers-by: a moody and preoccupied young prince with his best friend. After some banter with the gravedigger, have the prince hold a freshly unearthed skull, only to discover that it belongs to his one-time playmate and court jester: he says, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.” Given what leads to this point, the melancholia mixed with profound personal loss is unmistakable—all evocatively sprung by “Alas.” Without it, what may be a passing moment becomes an unforgettable moment. With it we get some sense of what is running through Hamlet’s own revenge-soaked noggin: he looks mortality in the face, with the sense that shortly he may be facing his own.

So what about the comeback? As mentioned, Ngram indicates a steady three-century decline, but what it also shows is a conspicuous increase in the frequency of “alas” very close to the year 2000, that then continues strongly until at least 2008 (where Ngram’s dataset of five million books ends). While we should be cautious in claiming that Ngram is an exacting tool of “culturomics”—its otherwise ingenious algorithms mine neither journalism nor the most powerful discourse of our time, popular culture—the increase remains intriguing.

But what Ngram cannot do with journalism, the search function on particular sites can. Rifling through a few prominent non-tabloid newspapers like The Times (UK), The New York Times, and The Guardian, we find “alas” turns up about almost once a day. And it appears in all kinds of contexts—in food, music, and book reviews, as well as in science writing and political analysis. Even obituaries. Often, though, it takes a turn to the trifling or to lighter subjects. Take a sample week or so in March 2012. Here is an excerpt from a review of a Thai restaurant in The New York Times: “The beef salad got similar treatment with the addition of crunchy ground toasted rice, but the meat, alas, was tough.” From The Times we get the non-urgent subject of celebrity eyewear: “Palin glasses, alas, only suit Sarah Palin.” Meanwhile, in The Guardian’s sports section, “Alas it was about this time when Arsenal's challenge fizzled out . . .”

Numbers drawn from The Guardian seem to correspond with the general thesis drawn from Ngram’s information, that the use of “alas” has increased since around the year 2000. In The Guardian, “alas” was used 271 times in 1999 and 720 times in 2011, which is getting on to a 300% increase; the high point was between 2007-09, when it was used on average 870 times a year.

So what, if anything, does this mean? Certainly we could draw the easy conclusion, that words can make a comeback, though we can be thankful that some—like “malagrugrous” or “groovy”—can happily be left behind, though “brabble,” as in to argue noisily over nothing, could be usefully revived.

There may, however, be a more complex answer buried within this trivial pursuit of an otherwise trivial word, but it is worth sounding since it possibly intersects with some larger conclusions. The contemporary revival of “alas” might reflect our so-called “post-ironic” times, where seriousness and disingenuousness artlessly conflate: “alas” is capable of capturing both positions at once. That is, it has to do with living in an era that too easily solicits and confuses unease, sighs, second thoughts, and apologies. The threats of terrorism, economic meltdowns, melting glaciers, and the proliferation of Web venues for the public to parade its dimness could, quite understandably, have that kind of effect. The word may have made a slight return via this rather warped logic: we are resigned to not knowing what to say yet feeling that we have much to say, and provided with far too many places to say it—and “alas” gives us, or at least represents, the opportunity to display our uncertainty about how to say it. Alas, indeed. 

At any rate—and this expression, too, is a modern rhetorical shrug—Chaucer, Byron, Eliot, Hill, and Will presumably knew what they were doing, and perhaps we, following their seriousness, might begin to use the word seriously.

G. Kim Blank has published widely in both academic and in popular venues. He teaches at the University of Victoria.


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