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Thee, thou and thy

January 3, 2013

 There’s a peculiarly witless and annoying advertisement on television just now – I can’t remember exactly what it’s for, something to do with cars, I think – in which a salesman gets it into his head that a customer has a title, and kneels down and addresses him in obsequious and obsolete terms: “‘Tis a pleasure to behold thee, brave knight” etc. As I have previously commented on this blog (see You may recalleth, 28/10/11), if you’re going to deliberately use archaic language then you ought to get it right. In the advert, thee, thou and thy are used as if they’re ultra-respectful modes of address. In fact, when the thou forms were in use, they were used to address either intimates or social inferiors. A Tudor peasant who addressed his lord as thou would probably have been imprisoned, whipped, maimed or killed as a punishment. The polite mode of address was you. (This was also the plural form – like the French vous).

In our times, however, the thou forms are often interpreted as signifying solemnity, formality or respect – as in the Diana Ross lyric, “Respectfully I say to thee I’m aware that you’re cheating”. Probably the reason is simply that they are archaic, and archaic language does tend to sound more formal and dignified: these forms have only been encountered by most people in Shakespeare, or in tags from the King James Bible, and some of the prestige of those texts attaches to them. (It’s interesting that Victorian poets, especially bad ones like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, continued to employ these forms long after they had ceased to be in common use.)

More specifically, the fact that in the King James Bible, and also in The Book of Common Prayer, God Himself is addressed as thou/thee, must reinforce the notion that these forms signify respect. Actually God is addressed as thou because it is an intimate form, used for family members and loved ones and thus suitable for God the Father. (God is also addressed by the familiar forms tu/toi in French.)

The advert annoyed me when I saw it, but in the course of writing this my annoyance has abated. It is, after all, a remarkable and interesting phenomenon that these dead forms continue to have a sort of afterlife in which they mean the opposite of what they meant when they were living.

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One Comment
  1. Hmm… following the supposed logic, shouldn’t the lyric be, “Respectfully I say to thee I’m aware that thou’rt cheating”? 😉

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