On the use of the word 'gotten' - Sarah Woodbury

On the use of the word ‘gotten’

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’


24 Replies to “On the use of the word ‘gotten’”

  1. Surprised this discussion has got this far without mention of a common UK English usage: Ill-gotten gains. A lonely survivor, but a survivor nonetheless.

    1. Yes, indeed! As an American, I was struggling to think of how to say that phrase without ‘gotten’. Nice to know the UK folks still use it there.

  2. It’s an interesting debate. I’ve used the word ’gotten’ all my life as I heard it used around me in the villages of North Oxfordshire. These places are off the beaten track and didn’t have much interference from outside being, instead, locations where the rich hid their insane and where dissent grew without oversight. The usage is, I think, residual rather than dialect.
    I’ve recently been pilloried for using the word and accused of being unfaithful to my home language. Clearly, this is far from correct and such claims feel to me, a cultural deletion. The same ’aggressor’ (perhaps wriggling a bit) told me his particular bain was when it was scripted as upper-class dialogue. I wonder, though, if it may also be residual in those circles because of previous generations spending time in the colonies. I’m certain the Lord of the Manor used it, as did a family with history in the Raj.

  3. Interesting, your research is convincing. But ‘gotten’ is SO not a mainstream word used in Britain, no matter how much you -or others who have posted – kind of justify its use,and I say that with a smile. I saw it recently in ‘The History of Bees’ by Maja Lunde,a Norwegian, and my first reaction was ‘there’s no way that guy (William) would say that, he’s from England in 1852 !’. If her aim was to be accurate, dialogue-wise, then fair play. But can’t help but think it’s been used with an eye on the American market. Or is that too cynical ?! Whatever, it really negatively impacted how I felt about the book, just that one wee word. I was actually surprised by how much it spoilt the book for me !

    Not as bad, however, as a real howler used in a book I read recently, again American, and a highly regarded writer : ‘should of’ used instead of ‘should’ve’. And not a one-off, either, loads of other writers are using this.

    Dearie me !

  4. This is a little tangential but what do you know about “for to”? My father used to complain whenever I used the expression but I’ve come to think his dislike was because Irish grandmother may have used it instead of a more American phrase.

  5. Bill Bryson’s “Made In America” is an entertaining account of how British and American English have diverged since the early colonies, and includes a number of examples of words commonly assumed by Brits to be Americanisms, but that are actually old English words that Americans have preserved. “Canyon” is one, abandoned by the British in the eighteenth century in favour of the French “gorge,” which not only refers to a distinctive topographical feature, but also a throat.

    I have read that England’s Wookey Hole Cave is named in three languages. Wookey is Viking, Hole is Saxon,Cave is French, all meaning a depression in the ground.

  6. I have enjoyed reading the After Cilmeri series but find the increasing use of americanisms and especially American spellings very irritating.
    Why spoil a story about British medieval history in this way.

  7. I use “Gotten” quite often, however Canadian English can be rather confusing at times because both the American and U.K. spellings are often acceptable.

  8. In the 1960’s and early 1970’s in Australia I was told not to use
    “gotten” but to use “got” instead as “gotten” was [quote] “a horrible Americanim”. The result is that I never now use it personally and especially never write it down. However I’m now finding that the younger generation are using it very often and I’m increasingly seeing it written or spoken Australian TV, newspapers, articles etc. If you went back 20 or 30 years ago it would be been rare or edited out!

      1. I had someone comment on my use of “gotten” today. I think I picked it up in NE Scotland but since I’ve not lived there for over 20 years I really don’t remember! Recorded usage in Scots so can believe it would be used in Ireland especially Ulster.

    1. Aisling gotten is used more in Ireland, as is “can I get” instead of “may I have” because of the stronger links between Ireland and America- think of all the emigration, all the American-Irish who visit us and bring back americanised English with them. We are closer to the USA than the UK in many ways because of those emigrants.

  9. 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.

  10. 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?

    1. 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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