Shooketh, rattleth, and rolleth

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In his "The Good Word" column of The Atlantic (1/24/22), Caleb Madison has a new article, "Why We’re All Shooketh:  The term is online slang of Biblical proportions".  The first two paragraphs:

Lately modern life has felt all too biblical. Plagues, massive weather events, tribal divisions, demagogic leadership … and people using words like shooketh. The phrase I’m shooketh was first uttered by the comedian Christine Sydelko in a YouTube video uploaded to her account in 2017 (she was expressing her shock at having been recognized by a fan at Boston Market). The adjective shooketh took off as a way to lend biblical proportions to awestruck confusion. But the linguistic journey to its creation spans the evolution of the English language, connecting Early Modern English, turn-of-the-century adventure novels, and Twitter slang.

When we want to transform verbs like shake into adjectives, we typically use something called a participle, either present or past. The present participle of shake is shaking, as in “I’m shaking.” The past participle would be “I’m shaken.” But, for some reason, in the 19th century, the simple past tense, shook, took hold. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 adventure classic Treasure Island, Long John Silver admits, “I’ll not deny neither but what some of my people was shook—maybe all was shook; maybe I was shook myself.” And 14 years later, in Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous, the form reappears within a now-common collocation with up when Dan Troop exclaims, “Well, you was shook up and silly.”

Before proceeding on to account for the -eth suffix, I want to call attention to a usage in the quotations from Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling, namely, "some of my people was shook—maybe all was shook" and "you was shook up".  Madison doesn't comment on this, but it documents the lack of grammatical agreement in the past tense of the verb "be" during the second half of the 19th century.  It's not that I find that particularly surprising, but it makes me wonder how far such verbal disagreement goes back before the second half of the 19th century.  I suspect that it goes back a very long time, though I have little documentation for my surmise (see "Selected readings" below).

Now to the second half of the combination: the suffix -eth. To make shooketh’s relationship to tense even more … uh … well … tense … -eth was used in Early Modern English (think Shakespeare and the King James Bible) to put verbs in the third-person present tense. Back then, English had different verb endings depending on who was doing the action. “I love,” yes, but “thou lovest” and “he/she/it loveth.” Soon, -eth simplified to just -s, but we still use the form when we need to give our verbs a little extra ancient oomph. It just wouldn’t be as momentous to say “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away!” And it certainly wouldn’t be as cool to say “I’m shooks.”

But our distance from the Elizabethan era allows -eth to reappear with no tense tension. Instead, it simply adds a wry dramatic flourish to the feeling of being shook. If using shook dials the shock of shaken up a notch, adding -eth pushes the intensity to 11, expressing a holy and almost sublime desire in the face of inexplicable events. Shooketh yokes together a punchy modern verbal innovation with a dramatic formal relic of early English to communicate a shaking of biblical proportions. Hence the Thursday-level clue “Gobsmacked, in faux-archaic slang.”

For those of us who were steeped in the King James Bible and Shakespeare, at times it almost seems more natural to express ourselves in late 16th and early 17th century English than in contemporary terms.  Francis Cleaves (1911-1995), the Harvard Mongolist-Sinologist, translated The Secret History of the Mongols (1982) into Elizabethan English, which was later translated into contemporary English by Paul Kahn (1984).


Selected readings

For a time—quite a while, in fact, from the late 1600s through the late 1700s—singular “you” got singular verbs: “you was,” “you is,” “you does.” It was so common, Robert Lowth inveighed against it in his 1762 Short Introduction to English Grammar. Even Doctor Johnson used “you was.” Will we try the same kind of thing with “they”—saying “they is” and “they was”? A few people have tried it, but such usages are already strongly associated with “uneducated” English, and so they’re unlikely to become commonplace. And “you was” didn’t last, after all—Doctor Johnson and everyone else ultimately switched to “you were” even for the singular.

So how do we specify plural “you”? You know how: we add further plural specification to it. In the US South, “y’all” or “you-all” is very common, and it’s spreading; in other places, “yous,” “youse,” “you ’uns,” “yiz,” and “yinz” are local favourites. In many other places, we say “you guys” or something similar when we need to make the distinction. And I’ll wager we’ll end up doing the same kind of thing with plural “they.” “They-all” seems readily available; “those ones” and “those guys” are likely to show up; differential usages of “themselves” and “themself” are already in use and may be extended; and others may appear—I’ll be watching eagerly. And in some contexts, for added clarity, something like “the one” might be used for the singular.


[h.t. Don Keyser]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    January 25, 2022 @ 4:11 pm

    Being a Briton, I eschew all variants of "you all" and are far too far south (and west) to adopt "youse", "yinz" and so on. So, when necessary (and only when necessary), I write "you (plural)" or if brevity is essential "you (pl.)".

  2. Phillip Helbig said,

    January 25, 2022 @ 5:07 pm

    Elvis was all shook up, but Bond liked his martinis shaken.

  3. Peter Taylor said,

    January 25, 2022 @ 6:05 pm

    It just wouldn’t be as momentous to say “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away!”

    The slight snag there is that the Authorised Version doesn't have a present tense. It's "the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away" (with optional styling on both instances of "Lord" to indicate that they represent the tetragrammaton).

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 25, 2022 @ 6:56 pm

    For post-19th-century usage of "was" with plural pronouns, the first song on Paul McCartney's first solo album (recorded early 1970) is entitled "Man, We Was Lonely." A more recent instance (said to be from a participant in the August 2011 rioting in London) covers both first and third persons: "They [i.e. the police] was the criminals today. We was enforcing the law. Getting them out of our town because they ain't doing nothing good anyway for no one."

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 25, 2022 @ 7:07 pm

    "Why We’re All Shooketh"

    "Soon, -eth simplified to just -s, but we still use the form when we need to give our verbs a little extra ancient oomph."

    "But our distance from the Elizabethan era allows -eth to reappear with no tense tension."

    No matter how often we see this complacent assumption that we agree with the writer, it doesn't induce us to agree with them or like them.

  6. Terpomo said,

    January 25, 2022 @ 7:45 pm

    @Peter Taylor
    The Lord yeeteth, and the Lord yoinketh away.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 25, 2022 @ 8:08 pm

    Doughty lexicographers tracking this novelty have uncovered the following participial usage:

    2018, Kali Daniel, quoted in "The Case Of Star Wars V. Star Trek", SET Magazine (2018), Volume 6, Issue 4, page 18:
    "Amidala's headdress alone hath shooketh me to my core."

    This sort of usage seems to me to stand in the same relationship to actually-attested older varieties of English that the jocular-or-offensive (depending on who you ask) "Mock Spanish" exemplified by phrases like "No problemo" stands to actual Spanish.

    I concur with Jerry Friedman's reaction, which I might paraphrase as "what do you mean 'we,' kemo sabe"?

  8. AntC said,

    January 25, 2022 @ 8:23 pm

    No matter how often we see this complacent assumption that we agree with the writer, …

    Yes social-media "we" is one of the (few) usages I peeve about. But I'm afraid that boat has sailed.

    Endless vacuous tittle-tattle in the 'Lifestyle' columns, typically beginning "Why we're all …" or "Why do we Britons still …?" [The Guardian a couple of months ago — and that organ is far from being the worst]. I reject the writer's presupposition and presumptuousness. And I've never uttered "shooketh". Indeed I'd regard anybody who did as fatuous.

  9. Jenny Chu said,

    January 25, 2022 @ 8:25 pm

    I see this as the same delightful playfulness which is now producing the "whomst've" phenomenon online. It's not supposed to be unremarkably grammatical – it's supposed to be almost plausible, but not quite, and when you hear it (for the first time) you laugh.

    Then, over time, it becomes routine, and it either falls out of use (see also: tubular, to the max) or sticks around for the next generation to wonder about.

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    January 26, 2022 @ 4:50 am

    In re "what do you mean 'we', kemo sabe ?", I thought that the original was "What do you mean 'we', white man ?", (allegedly) uttered by Tonto in response to the Lone Ranger's "Looks like we're in serious trouble, old kemo sabe …" when he finds that they are completely surrounded by hostile Commanche.

  11. Robot Therapist said,

    January 26, 2022 @ 5:15 am

    "No matter how often we see this complacent assumption that we agree with the writer, it doesn't induce us to agree with them or like them."

    This! (…to use another social media coinage which I like).

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    January 26, 2022 @ 6:47 am

    "…to use another social media coinage which I like" — but which is, as I am sure you will appreciate, perhaps completely opaque to the rest of the world …

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    January 26, 2022 @ 7:32 am

    Correction to my penultimate comment, above —the actual (if apocryphal) dialogue went as follows (situation as before) —

    [Lone Ranger] "Well, I guess this is the end for us, old kimo-sabe".
    [Tonto] "What you mean 'us', white man ?!".

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 26, 2022 @ 10:27 am

    Philip Taylor: I've heard many versions of that joke. In what sense is the one above the actual version?

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    January 26, 2022 @ 10:44 am

    A very good question. It is the version as I originally encountered it, as opposed to the earlier version which I gave which was incorrectly re-constructed on the basis of JWB's « what do you mean 'we' » version. In the joke as I first encountered it, it was 'us' rather than 'we' that was challenged, and Tonto spoke in broken rather than perfect English (« What you mean 'us' ? » rather than « What do you mean 'us' ? ». None of which was intended to suggest that other versions do not exist — it is clear that they do.

  16. Robert Coren said,

    January 26, 2022 @ 10:46 am

    I have always hated the practice of throwing in random "-eth"s to suggest an "archaic" or "elevated" style.

    A couple of things about "You is…", etc. (1) If the idea is to retain the concept of "singular" that was lost when "you" replaced "thou" in everyday speech, one might expect "you art" rather than "you is". (2) American Quaker speech (at least in late-19th-to-mid-20th-century usage) used "thee" both as subject and object, and it took third-person-singular verb forms ("thee is", etc.).

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 26, 2022 @ 11:14 am

    @Robert Coren: I suspect that in practice most instances of "you is" are not reflecting a deliberate contrast of singular "you is" with plural "you are" but are instances or partial relics of varieties of English in which "to be" is conjugated in the present indicative as "I is, you is, he/she/it is, we is, you is, they is." This "invariant is" pattern is said to be found in e.g. the "lower mesolect" stratum of creole in Trinidad and elsewhere in the formerly-British West Indies. An American instance would be the (jocular?) song title from the 1940's "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?" Some quick googling suggests that there may be a dispute about the extent to which, in an American context, it was merely a stereotypical feature of the stylized speech variety you might call "Comical Negro Stage Dialect" versus a genuine feature of AAVE that fell out of use before rigorous descriptive work on AAVE finally became commonplace circa 1970.

  18. Joe said,

    January 26, 2022 @ 11:56 am

    Interesting to note that Stevenson's usage of "shook" as an adjective precedes Mobb Deep's "Shook Ones" by more than a hundred years.

  19. Philip Anderson said,

    January 26, 2022 @ 1:49 pm

    Both the Stevenson and Kipling quotes are in direct speech, and both are clearly intended to be non-standard forms, but don’t tell us how widespread that usage was in practice, and where.

  20. RfP said,

    January 26, 2022 @ 3:08 pm

    According to Comic Book Legends Revealed #329, the Tonto joke seems to have been written by E. Nelson Bridwell, and appeared in Mad Magazine number 38 in 1958, with artwork by Joe Orlando. (The author of this article couldn't find an earlier citation.)

    Here’s the text:

    Lone Ranger: Indians! Indians all around us! Well, Tonto, ol' kimosavee, it looks like we're finished!
    Tonto: What you mean … WE?

  21. Keith said,

    January 26, 2022 @ 4:54 pm

    In many topolects of English in the British Isles the second person singular pronoun "thou" and its corresponding verb parts are still extant, though associated (as Philip Anderson has pointed out in the case of reported direct speech in Stevenson and Kipling) with a lack of education (or "rusticity").

    In my place of birth, there are also many contractions, leading to expressions such as "thart" from "thou" (pronounced more like "tha") and "art", "thast" from "thou" and "hast" and the interrogative "asta" from "hast thou" (with the added complication of dropped H).

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 26, 2022 @ 6:51 pm

    RfP: Thanks. I'm surprised to see forms of "kee-mo-sah-bee" (Wikipedia's spelling) in the Mad version and yours, since I thought Tonto addressed the Lone Ranger that way but not vice-versa. But I've never watched (or listened to) the show, so what do I know?

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 26, 2022 @ 7:52 pm

    I just now recalled a notable 19th century usage of participial/adjectival "shook" that does not seem to mark the diction of a "rustic" character, viz. the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins that begins:

    The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

    Hopkins' poetic diction could be a bit odd and perhaps pseudo-archaic, but was not intended AFAIK to be at all "rustic" in the relevant sense.

  24. RfP said,

    January 26, 2022 @ 11:41 pm

    @Jerry Friedman:

    As a childhood fan of the TV version, I don’t ever recall the Lone Ranger calling Tonto “Kemo Sabe.” I’m pretty sure that was Tonto’s name for the Lone Ranger. (Which some have gathered was a corruption of “Quien no sabe,” in response to the Spanish meaning of “Tonto.”j

    I suspect the people at Mad magazine just wanted to shoehorn that moniker into the strip for atmosphere—accuracy be gosh durned ta blue blazes.

  25. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 27, 2022 @ 12:27 am

    J. W. Brewer: That's a good one, though Hopkins isn't someone you rely on for standard English.

    RfP: Thanks again. I hadn't heard that refinement of the urban legend that "ke-mo sah-bee" (the actual Wikipedia spelling, which doesn't necessarily mean correct) is an insult. But as Wikip says, it pretty certainly comes from Ernest Thompson Seton, who rightly or wrongly thought it meant "scout runner" in Ojibwe.

  26. Philip Taylor said,

    January 27, 2022 @ 4:24 am

    My recollections were that it was the Lone Ranger who referred to Tonto as "old kemo-sabe" (in the television programmes, as well as in the apocryphal joke version), but I was wrong, as this clip clearly demonstrates at 3:03.

  27. David said,

    January 27, 2022 @ 7:55 am

    One of Swedish glam-rock band The Ark's best-known songs is titled "Calleth You, Cometh I", which first of all uses the wrong endings, and secondly relies on the ability in Swedish to form conditional sentences using a VS construction ("kallar du (så) kommer jag" = "if you call, then I'll come") which you can't do in English. But it's quite catchy.

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 27, 2022 @ 10:03 am

    @Jerry Friedman:

    "Alack, why am I sent for to a king,
    Before I have shook off the regal thoughts
    Wherewith I reign'd?"

    -Richard II, act 4 scene 1

    So at some historical points, "shook" was a perfectly good past participle for "shake," not marked as non-standard or rustic or even informal. And then at some more recent point things changed.

  29. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 27, 2022 @ 11:19 am

    Further information on the history of participial "shook" as a respectable word:

    1. There are multiple other instances in Shakespeare beyond the one I previously quoted, although Shakespeare also sometimes uses participial "shaken."

    2. On the other hand, the King James Version has multiple instances of participial "shaken" but none of participial "shook," so not everyone appears to have been on the same page as of 400+ years ago.

    3. It's probably not the earliest, but I stumbled into an unequivocal prescriptivist condemnation of participial "shook" from 1869, in the second edition of Murby's English Grammar and Analysis (by J. Robertson), in which "Peter has shook the table" is given as an example of an error as grievous as "The minister has went from the church" or "My canary has flew from the cage."

    4. Yet participial "shook" was still extant in respectable sources in the 1860's, perhaps especially American, and perhaps especially in a religious or quasi-religious register. So, e.g., this from an 1867 Fourth of July oration by the Reverend George Whitfield Pepper, a one-time chaplain in the Union Army who subsequently ran the Freedman's Bureau in North Carolina before becoming the U.S. consul in Milan: "The edict of Freedom has resounded through all nations of the earth. Millions have gazed upon it with devout joy and rapture. It has shook the thronedoms of tyranny, and has made the minions of slavery tremble. It has reverberated from empire to empire, from continent to continent, from hemisphere to hemisphere." Whatever you want to call that sort of style, it ain't "rustic." Although I guess it is not implausible that a usage that had been abandoned as archaic in mainstream prose might survive simultaneously in both an exalted religious register and an unexalted rustic register?

  30. Philip Anderson said,

    January 27, 2022 @ 5:29 pm

    I think the Kipling and Stevenson examples are of uneducated speech, but not particularly rustic – Long John Silver was no peasant!

    Hopkins’ usage sounds more archaic/Shakespearean (it’s interesting that the Authorised Version didn’t follow it, yet it belonged to a religious register), and the meaning in his poem is unrelated to the “shook up” meaning in the other examples, which is the one that has entered modern slang.

  31. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 27, 2022 @ 6:25 pm

    J. W. Brewer: I agree that past-participal "shook" might have been found in non-standard dialects, both rustic and urban, and as an archaism at elevated levels. The prescription against it that you found suggests it wouldn't have been common in ordinary educated language.

  32. Andrew Usher said,

    January 28, 2022 @ 8:49 am

    I don't see that that's any different than the normal confusion of preterite and past participle that occurs with many English irregular verbs in nonstandard/colloquial use, which indeed dates back that far. The only thing here if that it formed an idiom (for some people, not for me) 'shook up'.

    'Shooketh' is of course indefensible, it doesn't even sound good, and no one should ever use '-eth' without knowing that it's only ever been a 3sg. ending.

    k_over_hbarc at

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