What in the Word?! The forlorn ‘lorn’
’Tis better to have lorn and lost than never to have lorn at all. Or so the poet says.
Little, lowly lorn. We might say it’s forlorn, a ‘pitifully sad and abandoned’ word in which the vestige of a lost English verb survives. So, let’s give lorn some etymological love, and let’s begin with forlorn.
We can find the verbal adjective forlorn – originally ‘morally lost’ or ‘depraved’ – in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which reach back to the 9th century. Forlorn is the past participle of an otherwise forgotten verb, forlese, ‘to lose completely or utterly’.
Forlese comes from the Old English forléosan, an irregular verb – a strong verb, if you want to get technical. In Germanic languages, a so-called strong verb marks its past tense with vowel changes, and there are a number of different patterns they could take. Sing/sang/sung and stink/stank/stunk follow one scheme, ride/rode/ridden and drive/drove/driven another.
Along with more familiar verbs like choose and freeze, forléosan followed a particular strong verb pattern, called Class II. Its past tense was forléas, e.g., He forléas his life in the fight – if you’ll permit some serious code-switching. Its past participle was forloren – his life was forloren in the fight. Middle English rendered them into forlese and forlorn.
For comparison, choose begins as the Old English céosan, taking the past tense céas and coren. Freeze was conjugated as fréosan, fréas, and froren. Time certainly did a number on these verbs to yield their modern chose/chosen and froze/frozen forms.
Forlese, as we saw, had a general sense of ‘to lose utterly’. Lose, forlese? Lose, forléosan? You might be scratching your chin and wondering: ‘Is that –lese or –léosan somehow related to the word lose?’ And you’d be correct.
Lose, loose, leasing, and the word-forming –less are all kin, stemming from a common Germanic root meaning something like ‘loosen, divide, cut’. Historical linguists even link this ancient root, incredibly, to the Greek-based analysis and Latin-based solve.
And the prefix for-? It used to be very productive in English, fronting various verbs to connote ‘exclusion’ or ‘destruction’. It was later extended to ‘completion’ (think absolute or abject). Now, it largely survives in forbear, forgo, and forsake, but Middle English records leave us with many other examples that, sadly, we’ve since forgotten. Here are some delightful, most Middle English examples the Oxford English Dictionary records:
- forgreme: to forfeit by displeasing (God)
- forslug: to neglect through sluggishness
- forgab: to defame, publish the misdeeds of
- forfrorn: frozen up, stuck fast in the ice (See the old past participle of frozen?)
- forbrittened: broken in pieces
- forwintered: reduced to straits by winter
- forflitten: scolded above measure
- forswunk: exhausted with labour
- fordin: to fill with noise, resound through
- forbliss: to make happy.
Etymologists ultimately connect this for- to English’s for and fore, along with other Indo-European prefixes like Latin’s per-, pre- and pro-, though the meanings diverged long, long ago. We don’t want to forsench, er, drown, you in the details.
A poetic perseverance
Due to whatever accidents of history and randomness of language change, English forwent forlese, but forlorn lives on as an adjective. Its current sense of ‘abandonment’, of ‘misery’, retains that intensive ruination of for– and holds onto that hoary past participial –lorn.
Forlorn especially endures in the expression forlorn hope, a ‘desperate or futile undertaking’. Forlorn hope is borrowed from the Dutch verloren hoop, originally naming a detachment of fighters who led an attack – and many of whom would so meet with their demise. Forlorn is the English equivalent of the Dutch verloren, but hope misconstrues the Dutch hoop, which isn’t related to the English hope but heap. Verloren hoop literally means ‘lost troop’.
For a time into its Early Modern period, English freed up the –léosan from forléosan for the verb leese, ‘to lose, fail, be deprived of, ruin’, whose past participle was also simply lorn.
And we might thank some of our great poets for its survival.
In Shakespeare’s Tempest, the sprite Iris describes a “dismissed bachelor” as “being lass-lorn,” or having been rejected by his sweetheart. And some decades later, one of English’s other great wordsmiths, John Milton, gives us lovelorn in his court masque, Comus:
Sweet Echo, sweetest Nymph that liv’st unseen
Within thy airy shell
By slow Meander’s margent green,
And in the violet imbroider’d vale
Where the love-lorn Nightingale
Nightly to thee her sad
Song mourneth well.
A search through the OED only turns up one other lorn: a ‘roof-lorn cottage’, or ‘roofless’, in English novelist Eugenia de Acton’s (Alethea Lewis) 1804 A Tale Without a Title.
Roof-lorn. Beautiful. It’s a shame we’re lorn-lorn. Perhaps lorn is ripe for a comeback: a tree-lorn road, a star-lorn sky, a peace-lorn world, a fact-lorn culture? And while we’re at it, why not revive the for- prefix – like for-twittered, or broken to pieces by social media?