« previous post | next post »

"Dave Barry's Year in Review 2019"

… which begins with the federal government once again in the throes (whatever a "throe" is) of a partial shutdown, which threatens to seriously disrupt the lives of all Americans who receive paychecks from the federal government. 

Consulting the OED on throe (entry updated 2017), we learn that its orthographic history is interesting:

Of uncertain origin. Perhaps a variant or alteration of another lexical item. […]
The range of forms attested for this word is difficult to account for. […]
The current standard spelling throe […] is a 16th-cent. alteration of throw, throwe […] (compare with similar alteration the current forms of roe (earlier row , rowe ), hoe (earlier how , howe ), etc.), perhaps motivated by a desire to differentiate this word from throw.

And its semantic history is even more so:

1.a. An intense spasm of pain experienced during labour; a uterine contraction; (also, in plural) the pain and effort of labour or childbirth.
[attested from c1200]

b. An intense spasm of pain experienced immediately prior to death; (also in plural) the agony or struggle of death. Cf. death throe n.
[attested from c1300]

c. More generally: any violent pain, spasm, or convulsion; esp. a mental or emotional spasm, an onrush or outburst of feeling, a paroxysm.
[attested from 1393]

2. figurative and in figurative contexts. Chiefly in plural. An intense or violent pain, spasm, or struggle, esp. preceding or accompanying the creation or completion of something. Now frequently in in the throes of.
[attested from 1698]



  1. Andrew Usher said,

    December 30, 2019 @ 7:17 pm

    Well, I would always have imagined it's the same word as 'throw', given a different spelling for a perceived different meaning (as happened with born/borne, hoard/horde, (more recently) aid/aide). It seems there's nothing to contradict that and it surely does come from the same root – given the original meaning both are plausible developements.

    k_over_hbarc at

  2. David Morris said,

    December 30, 2019 @ 7:43 pm

    Some time ago I wrote a blog post about 'throws of passions', which I encountered on an otherwise respectable website. Stan Carey commented that the Eggcorn Database has a listing for throes>throws.

  3. cameron said,

    December 30, 2019 @ 8:43 pm

    @Andrew Usher – "hoard" is from Old English; "horde" is a borrowing from Turkic

  4. Philip Anderson said,

    December 31, 2019 @ 5:36 am

    @Andrew Usher: isn't the difference between 'aid' and 'aide' that they were borrowed independently from the French 'aide'? The former came earlier, and was anglicised, by dropping the silent letter, while the latter (as a word in its own right) came later, not from aid but from 'aide-de-camp', which had been borrowed with French spelling and pronunciation.

  5. David Marjanović said,

    December 31, 2019 @ 12:17 pm

    @Andrew Usher – "hoard" is from Old English; "horde" is a borrowing from Turkic

    Yes, and that's why the German forms are Hort (m.) vs.Horde (f.). The former is cognate with a Gothic stem huzd- meaning "treasure".

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 1, 2020 @ 11:44 am

    In addition to the possible connection to throw (from a root meaning "twist, writhe"), Etymonline mentions a possible connection to threat via a word meaning "affliction, pang, evil; threat, persecution".

  7. Andrew Usher said,

    January 1, 2020 @ 12:45 pm

    My point really didn't hinge on etymology, that was just a strengthening factor for this particular case. It's that there is a tendency, shown by examples like mine, to want to differentiate in spelling what are perceived in different meanings, even though the words are absolutely identical in speech. And I don't think that's unique to English: all languages with a reasonable degree of standardisation probably see it.

    Even if the usual sources are ambiguous about it, my own reading has convinced me that modern aide 'assistant' is a 20c. respelling of older aid in the same sense; although I admit it could be influenced by 'aide-de-camp' it shows still the complete differentiation.

  8. Philip Anderson said,

    January 1, 2020 @ 4:36 pm

    @Andrew Usher:
    But not all languages allow homonyms to have different spellings; in a completely regular spelling system, there's only one way to spell each word. Even in English, most differently-spelt homonyms reflect older pronunciations. I am not denying that some spelling variations are deliberate, but can you give enough examples from other languages to show a 'tendency'?

  9. Andrew Usher said,

    January 5, 2020 @ 10:27 am

    Well, 'tendency' isn't a very strong claim, so perhaps the I shouldn't have such a burden of proof – how many examples would be 'enough'? In addition, I don't know that any spelling system as used is completely regular in the sense that there is only one possible way to write any utterance in the language's phonemic system.

RSS feed for comments on this post