Mind your language

Alas, ‘alas’ is losing its irony

7 November 2020

9:00 AM

7 November 2020

9:00 AM

Boris Johnson looked unhappy, as well he might, standing at his indoor lectern last Saturday to announce the new lockdown: ‘In this country, alas, as across much of Europe, the virus is spreading.’

He said alas a couple more times during the conference. Normally such a word belongs to the sprinkling of slightly absurd phrases that garnish his speech like particularly curly parsley. But, Ichabod, the fun has departed. Alas, there is less and less irony in saying alas.


The Prime Minister is doubtless aware of the classical origin of alas in lassitudo, Latin for weariness. Lassitude came into English in the 16th century. Francis Bacon, the Jacobean Lord Chancellor, not the masochistic painter, wrote: ‘Lassitude is remedied by bathing or anointing with oil and warm water.’ This seems optimistic.

Alas, taken up by the English from the 13th century, comes in two parts, the first vowel being an interjection: ‘A!’ In the Anglo-Norman and Old French from which the exclamation was borrowed, the two parts were often written as two words. An alternative French form hélas was used in English from the 15th century by writers such as Caxton, who often read French books. In French, as in English, the last letter of hélas is sounded.

In cheerfuller times, Boris Johnson might have gone the whole doublet: ‘Alas and alack!’ The lack element had the meaning ‘failure, fault, disgrace, shame’ — senses of the ordinary word lack, as in ‘lack of moral fibre’. Alas the day and alack the day were alternatives. Alack a day was aphetised as lackaday. Thence came lackadaisical, embraced by Laurence Sterne. By the time of Gilbert and Sullivan, lackaday-dee (Yeoman of the Guard) was distinctly Wardour Street, as fake antiques were called.

Richard Steele, who wrote about 250 of the 555 issues of the original Spectator, had already written a play, The Tender Husband, in which a young lady objects to being called by such a plain hypocoristic as Biddy, preferring heroines’ names she has read such as Elismonda, Clidamira or Deidamia. ‘Alack a day, Cousin Biddy,’ says her aunt, ‘these idle romances have quite turn’d your head.’ In 1705, alack a day had no archaic tone. It does now, alas.

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