Giveth and taketh

« previous post | next post »

Peter Ringeisen writes to ask "why it is that educated people use ungrammatical obsolete verb endings?" — a question inspired by this passage in Thomas L. Friedman's New York Times op-ed column today:

Globalization giveth — it was this democratization of finance that helped to power the global growth that lifted so many in India, China and Brazil out of poverty in recent decades. Globalization now taketh away — it was this democratization of finance that enabled the U.S. to infect the rest of the world with its toxic mortgages. And now, we have to hope, that globalization will saveth.

Three things to comment on here. The use of obsolete verb endings in the first place. Then the extension of them to contexts where they're historically incorrect, as in will saveth (and by Friedman, an accomplished writer). Finally, the snowclone (actually, snowclone family) GivethTaketh ("X giveth and X taketh away"), which we haven't looked at here on Language Log and doesn't seem to be anywhere in the Snowclone Database.

Obsolete verb endings (like 3sg -eth) are often used in attempts to represent the speech or writing of earlier times, but they're also used in a humorous way, conveying mock high seriousness. Friedman's use of giveth and taketh is not quite either of these (I'll get to saveth in a while): it's presumably intended as a play on the biblical quotation "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away".

Well, the presumed biblical quotation. This is how most people remember it, but as Michael Macrone's Brush Up Your Bible! (excerpted on the Grace Cathedral website) explains:

The Lord Gave, and the Lord Hath Taken Away

Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped,
And said, Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
— Job 1: 20-21 (KJV)

You will not find the phrase, "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away" in the King James Bible — nice try with the Renaissance conjugations, but still a misquotation.

It's not even clear Job intended to make the sweeping generalization we do. The Hebrew verb translated as "gives" might really mean "gave," in which case Job is talking about only one particular incident, though admittedly it's a doozy.

(There are other English variants of the Job quotation, for instance "The lord he giveth, taketh away" here.)

Of course, popular belief trumps textual accuracy in many circumstances, especially when the popular version can be seen as an "improvement" on the original. So giveth … taketh away it is.

[Amendment of 20 October: I erred in taking Macrone to be authoritative, so I didn't search for the history of the giveth-taketh version. But others have; the 19 October entry on this site takes it back to the service for the burial of the dead in the first Book of Common Prayer (1549). Meanwhile, people on this site are pillorying me for being arrogant and ignorant.]

But Friedman didn't stop with the play on the Job quotation. He extended it playfully (possibly hoping to lighten the grim topic a bit), using -eth as a mere marker of archaism, attaching it even to a base form of a verb (in will saveth). Modern speakers, for the most part, don't appreciate that -eth is historically appropriate only for 3sg present tense verb forms, and so use it ornamentally. (More examples to come.)

Friedman had globalization (rather than the Lord) as the subject of giveth and taketh, which suggests that we're looking at an instance of a snowclone. And so it is. There are several variants. Closest to the Job version: "X giveth (and) X taketh away":

Amazon.com: The Street Giveth…and the Street Taketh Away: Cat Mother & the All Night News Boys (link)

Comcast Giveth—Comcast Taketh Away (link)

The Fed Giveth, The Fed Taketh Away (link)

including some with ornamental -eth:

Big Brother will giveth and Big Brother will taketh away … [base-form -eth] (link)

The nerds giveth and the nerds taketh away. [3pl -eth] (link)

Then without the subject repeated: "X giveth (and) taketh away" (most without the conjunction):

For industrial automation users, technology giveth and taketh away. (link)

Google giveth, taketh away. Pity poor KinderStart.com. (link)

IBM giveth, taketh away. (link)

including some with ornamental -eth:

The Feds Giveth, and Taketh Away [3pl -eth] (link)

Oracle Traders Giveth, Taketh Away [3 pl -eth] (link)

There are also some more complex cases, but there are a great many like the ones above, based very closely on the Job quotation.

There are also examples with a somewhat different pattern: "X giveth with one hand (and) taketh (away) with the other", with many further variants. My favorite example (clearly intended to be funny) so far is

The Universe giveth with one hand and bitchslappeth with the other. (link)

though this one, with a past participle ornamental -eth and a base form ornamental -eth as well, and with giveth and taketh reversed, is pretty good:

The Government has Taketh with one hand and will Giveth with the other in May with the perhaps-very-ill-named Economic Stimulus Act. (link)

The history of these variants is unclear to me, though the idioms "one hand gives, the other takes (away)" and "to give with one hand and take away with the other" are certainly involved in it.



Comments are closed.