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Friday, September 7, 2012

Please forbear from using "forebearer"

It seems that Wordlady is in a schoolmarmy reproving sort of mood in time for back-to-school, so once again I am writing about a - gasp - language error.

I have recently seen several instances where people used the word "forebearer" when what they meant was "forebear" (an ancestor or predecessor).

Although the famously inclusive Merriam-Webster dictionaries have an entry for "forebearer", and even the famously judgemental American Heritage Dictionary acknowledges that this variant may soon be acceptable (but not yet), most American and British dictionaries and the Canadian Oxford Dictionary consider "forebearer" to be a mistake.

It is not really surprising that people make this mistake, because you would think, looking at the word "forebear", that it comes from "fore" plus "bear", i.e. that these were the people who were born before you. But astonishingly, this is not true. The word was originally "forebeer", nothing to do with ale, but simply a noun "be-er", that is, someone who was before you. It was originally a Scottish term, which explains why the vowel was pronounced more like "bay" than like "be".

Most dictionaries accept "forbear" as a variant spelling of "forebear", but my advice would be to keep "forebear" for the noun and "forbear" for the verb, now very formal, meaning "refrain from doing something", e.g. "She forbore from commenting."

You can see this verb's slide into oblivion on the Google frequency chart below. The apparent post-2000 uptick is due to dictionaries and recent editions of 19th-century books being loaded onto Google Books. It is clear that the verb "forbear" is in its death throes. "Forbearance" has always been healthier than the verb from which it derives, but even it is not what it once was.

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  1. In your teaching about 'forebear,' Katherine, I notice you used 'judgemental' with the 'e' after the 'g.' In the Canadian Oxford Dictionary there is no 'e' after the 'g' after the first listing. Would that not be the preferred spelling?

    1. When we researched the dictionary, that was the more common spelling in Canada, but, as I recall, not by a huge margin. I don't use the word "preferred" as it implies a value judgement (or judgment!). If two spellings are given, users are free to use whichever of the two they like. I have never used "judgment" personally (the word, that is, not the thing!). Just goes to show that the dictionary does not necessarily reflect the practices of its editor, but rather of general usage.

  2. So the plural of forebear is forebears???

  3. So if someone were to describe themselves as being "a religious forebearer", would this be considered acceptable?

    ... Modi


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.