My granddaughter had just come home from the hospital after surgery for a ruptured cyst with considerable bleeding. “Is she pale and wan?” I asked my daughter-in-law.

“What’s wan,” Martha asked.

“Pale,” I said.

“Pale and pale?” said Martha.

Flummoxed, I gathered myself together, and headed for Webster. Apparently I was guilty of using a three-letter word that I couldn’t define!

According to Webster, wan has nothing to do with pale but everything to do with faint and feeble. However, actually gives the first meaning as pallid, lacking color, and wiktionary gives a first meaning of pale or sickly looking, with a second meaning of dim or faint. All the sources give the etymology as being from the Old English wann, meaning dark.

It seems to me that if wan originally meant dark, it is unlikely that it originally meant pale, and that the more modern meanings proceed from a misperception, like mine above. Who doubts that and wiktionary are modern constructs? .

You know how it is nowadays. Words mean whatever you want them to mean. Marriage, which used to mean a convenant between a man and a woman is morphing into a union of just about anything or anybody. And lately people are having their wages garnished, as with a spring of parsley, rather than garnisheed. Apparently etymology and history mean nothing. It all boils down to usage, usage, usage.

“Why so pale and wan, fond lover?” How often we parrot things we’ve heard without knowing what we are saying.

Thus was I, who fancy myself a word-person, brought down by a simple three-letter Anglo-Saxon word!

Prithee, I think I feel a bit wan!


Why so pale and wan, fond lover?
Prithee, why so pale?
Will, when looking well can’t move her,
Looking ill prevail?
Prithee, why so pale?

Why so dull and mute, young sinner?
Prithee, why so mute?
Will, when speaking well can’t win her,
Saying nothing do’t?
Prithee, why so mute?

Quit, quit, for shame; this will not move,
This cannot take her;
If of herself she will not love,
Nothing can make her:
The devil take her!

Sir John Suckling