Whoa be tide

« previous post | next post »

Ruth Blatt, "The Lean And Mean Led Zeppelin Organization", Forbes 9/6/2014:

The Zeppelin organization was small by today’s standards, with a crew of only about 15 people traveling with the band. The band itself would arrive 30 minutes before a show. “They would turn up and they would go in the dressing room. There was no change of clothes or wardrobe or any of the poncy stuff. And whoa be tide if the stuff wasn’t ready,” he said “And it always was.”

These days, you see the archaic verb betide "to happen, befall" pretty much only in the frozen expression "woe betide" — in the 450 million words of COCA, betide occurs 31 times, and 30 of them are cases of woe betiding some individual or group, or rather being asked to betide them.  The only exception is from a 1991 article entitled "Indelibly Scottish, or Is It?", which quotes a song full of awkward archaisms:

There are still, it is true, Scottish singers who make professional careers out of romantic Scottish songs, and there are still writers writing them. A fairly recent (post-war, like Mary Webb's song) addition to the genre is the truly appalling "Oh the River Clyde, the wonderful Clyde! / The name of it thrills me and fills me with pride. / And I'm satisfied, whate'er may betide, / The sweetest of songs is the song of the Clyde", a lyric of such stunning clumsiness that its survival thus far, however cheerful its tune, is inexplicable.

In defense of Mary Webb's shameless appropriation of a Scottishness she never had, it might, be pointed out that she was working within a tradition. Even within Scotland such things went on. The famous song "I belong to Glasgow," everyone knows, was written by a comic called Will Fyffe who was born in Dundee.

So it's not surprising that Ms. Blatt, or one of her editors if any, should have tried to find a re-interpretation of the phrase more plausible to modern ears, that is, an eggcorn. "Whoa be tide" isn't entirely successful — the whoa part makes a certain amount of evocative sense, if only as an exclamation, but it's not clear how the tide enters into it.  However, I might be missing something, because "whoa be tide" is Out There:

Whoa be-tide anyone who got in the queue before them.

Whoa be tide the corrupt union officials when the Royal Commission flushes them out.

And whoa-be-tide if you don't get your kids the latest gadget, technology, clothing too, because they EXPECT it. They too have been programmed.

And whoa be tide they condone anything not subjected to rigorous clinical trials of medicines/vaccines/treatments that are usually all or partly funded by the manufacturer of said medicines/vaccines/treatments.

And so on.


  1. Mike said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 8:20 am

    Sounds like one of those expressions–like methinks–where nobody has a clue what it actually means. Maybe this is characteristic of frozen expression where a word or term essentially becomes a hapax legomenon.

    [(myl) In this case (and probably with methinks as well), it seems that people have a pretty good idea what it means, but are confused about how it means that.]

  2. John Shutt said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 8:21 am

    Perhaps (some of) those using the expression figure it has vaguely something to do with inevitability of consequences (not being able to stop the tide)?

  3. Craig said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 8:35 am

    When you write that they "tried to find a re-interpretation of the phrase more plausible to modern ears", I think you're implying more awareness and conscious intent than was actually involved. Like most eggcorns, "whoa be tide" seems the result of simple ignorance. What is it supposed to mean? "Whoa" is what you say to a horse to tell it to stop ("Whoa, Trigger!"); "tide" has to do either with waves or (if capitalized) laundry detergent; so what could "whoa be tide" possibly mean? "Woe", on the other hand, is sadness, which clearly fits in with the typical usage of the phrase ("woe betide he who…" meaning "doing [a certain thing] leads to suffering"). Anyone who has achieved even a passable level of semi-literacy should be able to figure out that "woe" is the correct word and that "betide" must somehow mean something like "will come upon" or "will happen to". At this point one might simply conduct a Google search or reach for the OED; and woe betide he (or she) who rashly guesses without bothering to check, or even ensure that the phrase s/he is using makes any sense at all.

  4. Monoglot said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 8:41 am

    "Woe betide" sounds suspiciously like a phrase that only survives as an quote from somewhere (e.g. the King James Bible). I didn't find anything in a Chaucer or KJV corpus search, but I did find a quote from Shakespeare: "Nurse: O gentle Aaron, we are all undone! Now help, or woe betide thee evermore!" (Titus Andronicus, Act IV, Scene 2, Line 1743). But Titus Andronicus might be a little obscure for that.

  5. Dick Margulis said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 9:04 am

    I think the likelier eggcorn would involve tied rather than tide (whether with woe or whoa), perhaps some sort of merging with "I'll be hogtied." Must go off to do some ngram research . . . Whoa! I've never seen that error before:

    "No valid ngrams to plot!

    "Ngrams not found: woe be tide, woe be tied, whoa betide, whoa be tide, whoa be tied"

  6. Ben Zimmer said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 9:05 am

    "Whoa is me" was an early addition to the Eggcorn Database. (And Mark has previously posted about the variant "Whoa as me.")

  7. Theophylact said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 9:41 am

    When I was a kid, we pronounced "whoa" the same as "hoe", not "woe".

  8. JJM said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 10:25 am

    "Whoa be tide!"

    Wasn't this what King Canute yelled at the sea?

  9. FM said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 11:11 am

    Theophylact: to me (General/California American), "whoa" pronounced as "hoe" is a noise one (theoretically, since I don't talk to horses much) makes at horses, and "whoa" pronounced as "woe" (but really more like [wʌʊ]) is an expression of surprise. It also contrasts with "wow" [wæʊ], which rhymes with "how" and is an expression of wonder or amazement.

  10. FM said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 11:13 am

    Correction: the vowel in "whoa" isn't any more open than the one in "woe", just shorter and potentially unrounded.

  11. Mark Young said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 12:32 pm


    Whoa be tide == the tides will stop == the Earth will stop spinning == some really awful things will happen.

    Seems more apt for someone using it to describe over-reactions, as in the "if you don't get your kids the latest gadget" example: "It's like the Earth would stop turning if they don't get their latest gadget." Note that in the latter two examples there is no particular person that woe betides (it's not "Whoa be tide *you* if you…."); it's just something that happens.

    It's less apt (or even unsuitable) for the examples where there is someone the woe is betiding, but the spelling could have been picked up separately from the grammar.

  12. Pflaumbam said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 1:10 pm

    According to the online etymological dictionary the verb betide is ultimately from the noun tide, as in the sea.

    [(myl) Though tide v. "to happen, befall" came from tide n. "A portion, extent, or space of time; an age, a season, a time, a while", long before tide n. was used to refer to anything about the sea.]

  13. Bob Ladd said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 1:10 pm

    @Craig: Having worked out that betide "must mean something like 'will come upon' or 'will happen to'", surely your hypothetical speaker "who has achieved a passable level of semi-literacy" might also notice that such verbs typically take an object and would write woe betide him (or her) who rashly guesses without bothering to check.
    With apologies for the sarcastic comment, though, I think it's of interest to the readership of Language Log that he who (she who, they who, we who etc.) are really fixed combinations in the usage of most speakers and writers of present-day Standard English (like Craig), and have only the "nominative" form of the personal pronoun regardless of the grammatical context. I recall trying unsuccessfully to persuade Geoff Pullum of this fact one time, and it's nice to find live evidence right here on LL.

  14. mike said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 1:35 pm

    Could it simply be that the writer has heard the phrase but never seen it (that they remember), and that "whoa" is their best guess for how it might be spelled? IOW, it's a phonetic rendering. If that were the case, "whoa" is as sensible as "woe," since the phrase as a whole kind of doesn't map to much of anything in everyday speech.

    I'm thinking here along the lines of Wallah!" for "Voilà."

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 3:31 pm

    mike: In fact, you can find examples of "wo be tide".

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 4:07 pm

    "Betide" as a perfectly cromulent verb not limited to one fixed phrase can be seen in "King Henry" (Child ballad 32) http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/child/ch032.htm (verse 17), which admittedly is either a rather old text or a Victorian attempt at archaism or a mix.

  17. David Morris said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 5:08 pm

    Having not thought about the expressions 'woe betide' and 'whate'er may betide' for years, after reading this and thinking about it, I was surprised that there is only one instance of the latter. A quick Google search returned 790,000 instances of 'whatever may betide', especially in hymns of the 19th century. One typical example is: 'I am safe whatever may betide me. I am safe whoever may deride me.' I don't remember any instances from my own hymn-singing (in the late 20th/early 21st centuries, not the 19th!).

  18. maidhc said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 5:24 pm

    If you were talking to a horse, wouldn't it be more natural to say "Whoa! Be tied."?

  19. Adrian Bailey said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 5:54 pm

    David Morris: If you can find 500 different webpages that contain the phrase "whatever may betide" I'll give you $100.

  20. Rod Johnson said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 6:32 pm

    "Whoa be tied" gets some google action, as does, minimally, "whoa be tried."

  21. lhc said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 7:06 pm

    @Theophylact, I still pronounce whoa, hoe, and woe the same. You (that is, the rest of you) don't?

  22. Rodger C said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 7:16 pm

    Myself I can't imagine pronouncing woe and hoe the same.

  23. Will said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 7:52 pm

    How about "whoa be tired" if you speak British English without pronouncing your r's?

  24. Eric P Smith said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 8:07 pm

    @Will: I am familiar with several non-rhotic varieties of British English, but in none of them are "tide" and "tired" pronounced alike.

    But I dare say you were being facetious, in which case, that's all right then.

  25. Lazar said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 9:35 pm

    @lhc: In most dialects, "whoa" is pronounced /woʊ/ (or /ʍoʊ/, for those that still maintain the witch-which distinction), "woe" is also /woʊ/, and "hoe" is /hoʊ/.

    @Will: In most non-rhotic dialects, "tired" is /ˈtaɪǝd/; some, like U-RP, use a smoothed pronunciation such as [ˈtʰaǝd], but as far as I know no one merges it with "tide".

  26. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 11:25 pm

    @ MYL – thanks for another LL lesson in reading comprehension!

    @ Bob Ladd – sounds plausible, but I'd like to see some evidence though before accepting your 'most'. There's so much variation in pronoun case choice even within individual speakers' repertoires.

    @ Lazar – I think where 'tired' and 'tide' can get very near each other is when the former is not completely smoothed, resulting in something like /tɑǝd/ v /tɑid/. (What you transcribe as /aɪ/ is generally now /ɑi/ in 'Standard Southern' diphthongs and /ɑː/ in fully smoothed monophthongs.)

    Geoff Lindsey has an excellent analysis of smoothing with voice recordings here.

  27. mollymooly said,

    September 13, 2014 @ 7:41 am

    @Will et seq.:

    As an Irish person watching British TV, I often notice people pronouncing "Ireland" as what sounds to me like "island". Maybe my perception is not fine-tuned enough; there may be phonotactical reasons why /aɪǝd ~ aɪd / is less conflated than /aɪǝ.l ~ aɪ.l/ ; or it may just be that one lexeme.

  28. Robert Coren said,

    September 13, 2014 @ 11:50 am

    Trying to think of other instances of "betide", I came on one stored in my brain that even includes "woe", but not directly connected with "betide", from Gilbert & Sullivan's The Yeomen of the Guard:

    Oh, woe is you? Your anguish sink!
    Oh, woe is me, I rather think!
    Whate'er betide, you are his bride,
    And I am left, alone, bereft.

  29. Bob Ladd said,

    September 13, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

    @Pflaumbaum: Fair comment. I just tried to search for relative proportions of these on Google, but it's very difficult because Google ignores punctuation and capitalisation even if you search for a specific string. So if you search for "for he who", you get things like for "He who dares" and …stand for. He who… . The construction in question is clearly pretty rare in modern usage, regardless of pronoun case form, so the counts get overwhelmed by these other constructions. Also, you get massive amounts of Biblical text in many searches, especially for him who and them who, which seem pretty old-fashioned, especially the latter (because nowadays you would get those who).

    Nevertheless, there are certainly plenty of contemporary quotes with the pattern I mentioned in my comment (e.g. the top hit for the search "from they who" is a quote from TripAdvisor with "Thanks from they who feel the miracles"). It also seems relevant that a lot of Biblical quotes with him who get modified in modern usage: KJV Let him who is without sin gets discussed on the web as Let he who is without sin (and also Let she who is without sin and Let they who are without sin).

    A more sophisticated search algorithm working on Twitter data might give a clearer picture. Maybe someone else can do that.

  30. William Berry said,

    September 14, 2014 @ 2:45 pm

    I agree with Craig, above.

    Ignorance and semi-literacy (from hardly ever reading anything above the level of a Forbes publication) explain a lot here.

    These things can be over-analyzed.

  31. Rod Johnson said,

    September 14, 2014 @ 10:12 pm

    William Berry: What is it that you think needs to be "explained" here? The fact that this is an error is not really in dispute, I don't think. Thanks for sharing your disdain for the author's "ignorance and semi-literacy," though; that's a really novel insight, and I'm sure we're all better off having read it.

  32. Sarah said,

    September 15, 2014 @ 1:15 am

    David Morris: I can remember frequent singing of the hymn "Be not dismayed whate'er betide, God will take care of you" when I was a child in the fifties and sixties.

  33. Sarah said,

    September 15, 2014 @ 1:18 am

    Adrian Bailey: try "whate'er betide"

  34. William Berry said,

    September 15, 2014 @ 10:30 am

    @Rod Johnson:

    You're welcome.

  35. Zubon said,

    September 15, 2014 @ 11:16 am

    I most often hear "betide" in the soundtrack to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ("You Two"), but that might be idiosyncratic to my household.

    "Someone to share joy or despair with; whichever betides you."

  36. Colin Fine said,

    September 22, 2014 @ 3:24 am

    Mike: I know 'hapax Iegomenon' only in the sense of a form recorded only once; you seem to be using it in a different sense.

  37. Andrew (yet another one) said,

    September 22, 2014 @ 5:12 am

    … and then there is the converse eggcorn, "from go to woe".

RSS feed for comments on this post