At the Wording Desk
Increase your English vocabulary by learning obsolete words like dight that ought to gain new use
Once one of the most widely used words in English, dight is nowadays obsolete, smothered under the moss and lichen of discontinuance. Protracted desuetude has consigned dight to bygone wordbooks brown-spotted with foxing, making the term a timeworn fossil ─ except for dight’s one current poetic use.
As a verb it was first borrowed into Old English as dihtan from a Latin verb of many meanings dictare ‘assert, compose, dictate (for writing/speaking), draw up (a will), fix, order, prescribe, pronounce.’ From the principal parts of the verb, as commonly given in the study of Latin, namely dicto, dictare, dictavi, dictatus, one may see its many derivatives in English, among them words like (drug) addict, benediction, contradict, diction, dictate, dictator, dictamen (a pronouncement), even ditty!, edict, valedictory, verdict and vindictive.
The modern German verb dichten means “to write poetry” with its related agent noun Dichter ‘poet’ and its non-relatives like the common German adjective dicht cognate and synonymous with English thick meaning ‘dense, water-tight, air-tight, closed’ etc. Note well that dight is NOT cognate with the common German adjective dicht ‘thick, close,’ a Teutonic husk akin to our English adjective tight.
To dight had a similar semantic plethora when it was a common verb in Middle English, from just after the Norman Conquest to the 15th century, from, say, 1067 CE to 1500 CE. Middle English meanings of to dight included to appoint, to ordain, to manage, to rule, to deal with, to handle, to inflict, to adorn or equip as for battle, to compose or set down in words. Most important for its final modern use is ‘to dight’ meaning ‘to clothe, to dress, to adorn.” The Oxford English Dictionary adds this note: “In this sense the past participle dight is used by Sir Walter Scott, and in later poetic and romantic language it appears to be often taken as an archaic form of decked.”
Modern Examples of Use
Instances of dight in Modern English, roughly 1500 CE to the present, include mostly poetic and pseudo-poetic use. Milton wrote of “clouds in thousand liveries dight,” by which he meant “dressed.” He also waxed rapturous over “storied windows richly dight,/Casting a dim religious light.” Here the adjective dight means ‘decorated.’
Sir Walter Scott, who loved the archaizing use of older English words burbled “But, O! What maskers richly dight,” that is, costumed visitors pretty well dressed.
Wordsworth, in a customary paroxysm of his predisposition for verdancy said that “All the fields with freshest green were dight.” The fields, we lesser mortals may surmise, were “decked” with green.
Lesser poetasters wrote “There stand the village maids… dight in white” and spoke of “Orion, in golden panoply dight.” All dressed! As they say of potato chips.
“She had plenty of time to dight her wardrobe in readiness for the coming winter.” To dight = to make ready, to prepare
“I’ll just dight the table before I bring you your dinner.” Dight = make neat, make ready
William Morris in The Water of the Wondrous Isles wrote “She nodded yeasay, and began by seeming to dight the craft for return.” That is, prepare the boat for return.
How may we moderns best employ this word? My example takes advantage of its monosyllabic starkness: “Trump-voting trailer trash dight in bigotry.”
Bill Casselman, September 14, 2016
copyright William Gordon Casselman 2016
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