April 2, 2017 by

On the use of the word ‘gotten’

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Categories: Research, Tags: , , , , , ,

Many UK readers have wondered about–and objected strongly to–the use of the word ‘gotten’ in my books. Since the word is not in common usage in England right now, it seems odd to them to read it at all, and a glaring ‘Americanism’ in a book set in the medieval period. At first glance, this might appear to be yet another instance of ‘two countries separated by a common language,’ but as it turns out, the history of the word ‘gotten’ is a lot more interesting than that.

Gotten’ is, in fact, an English word that was in use in England at the time America was colonized by the English. It is found in the King James version of the Bible, and maybe even because of that, over the centuries, the Americans kept on using it and the English did not.

Origin:  1150-1200(v.) Middle English geten < Old Norse geta to obtain, beget; cognate with Old English –gietan (> Middle English yeten), German-gessen, in vergessen to forget; (noun) Middle English: something gotten, offspring, derivative of the v.  http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/gotten

“British English discontinued the use of “have gotten” as a form of the past participle for “get” over 300 years ago. The British Colonies on the other hand continued to use it. As a result American English continued the use of “have gotten” while British English relegated the word to obsolescence. It is now rarely used in the British version of the English language. American English continues to use “have gotten” to emphasis the action performed. In American English language “has got” implies possession. It is assumed that if “has got” is used that it is referencing what the person has in their possession. On the other hand, “has gotten” implies that the person acquired, received or obtained an item.”  http://www.reference.com/motif/reference/is-gotten-grammatically-correct  also: http://www.pbs.org/speak/ahead/change/ruining/

“Just seeing the word is enough to set the hair of some British English speakers on end. Yet, despite the many claims that it is an Americanism, it is most definitely of British origin and the Oxford English Dictionary traces its first use to the 4th century.

Since then, it has been used by many notable British English writers, including Shakespeare, Bacon and Pope and it was one of a number of words that were transported across the Atlantic with the settlers. But then it slipped out of use in British English, along with such words as fall for “autumn” (British English having opted to adopt the French word) and guess in the sense of “think”.” http://www.miketodd.net/encyc/gotten.htm

‘Got’ is also used in Welsh–or at least as much of it as I have so far managed to learn. ‘I have got’ (mae gen i) is a common phrase in modern Welsh and even has its own system of conjugation (you have got, he has got). Of course, my medieval characters aren’t speaking English anyway, so whether they might have used ‘got’ as well as ‘gotten’, like their English counterparts, is something I don’t know! However, if my medieval characters were speaking English (which they generally are not), they would have used, ‘gotten’.

And for those who continue to be skeptical, perhaps a few quotes from Francis Bacon (written 1601) will suffice:

“This envy, being in the Latin word invidia, goeth in the modern language, by the name of discontentment; of which we shall speak, in handling sedition. It is a disease, in a state, like to infection. For as infection spreadeth upon that which is sound, and tainteth it; so when envy is gotten once into a state, it traduceth even the best actions thereof, and turneth them into an ill odor. And therefore there is little won, by intermingling of plausible actions. For that doth argue but a weakness, and fear of envy, which hurteth so much the more, as it is likewise usual in infections; which if you fear them, you call them upon you.” ‘Of Envy’

“And because it works better, when anything seemeth to be gotten from you by question, than if you offer it of yourself, you may lay a bait for a question, by showing another visage, and countenance, than you are wont; to the end to give occasion, for the party to ask, what the matter is of the change? As Nehemias did; And I had not before that time, been sad before the king.” ‘Of Cunning’

“Meaning that riches gotten by good means, and just labor, pace slowly … Riches gotten by service, though it be of the best rise, yet when they are gotten by flattery, feeding humors, and other servile conditions, they may be placed amongst the worst.” ‘Of Riches’

http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/bacon/bacon_essays.html

4 Responses to On the use of the word ‘gotten’

  1. Jules

    Gotten is an over used verb. It makes the writer look lazy and unimaginative. As an Australian teacher, I would discourage its use in a formal essay,speech or short story. There are many other verbs such as received,gained,caught, achieved etc. Once again, I see the use of gotten in a text as a lazy effort by the writer.

  2. Skip Knox

    Thanks for that, Sarah. Good research as always. Your article raises a question for me. Do you distinguish between dialog and narrative? This extends to all sorts of words and phrases,but let’s stick with gotten. Do you use it in dialog but not in narrative?

    • Sarah Post author

      That would depend on who is talking. In my time travel books, my American characters use it freely in dialogue and in the chapters they narrate. In a chapter with a modern English person, I wouldn’t use it at all. But in the books that involve purely medieval people, I use it if its appropriate. To be honest, I use it less since I discovered it was so abhorrent to certain UK readers!

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