Bill Casselman

an archaic English noun worth reviving

Adam and Eve suffer

their just MEED,

expulsion from Eden,

in this fresco by Masaccio

At the Wording Desk


Increase your English vocabulary with now obsolete words like meed that may be brought back into current use

Just how long has meed, a noun meaning ‘wages, salary, just reward’ been obsolete in English prose and conversation? Well, consider this quotation from a personal letter written by Thomas Gray (poet who wrote the often quoted “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”). Gray was advising a fellow writer: “I think we should wholly adopt the language of Spenser's time, or wholly renounce it. You say, you have done the latter; but, in effect, you retain fared forth, meed, wight, ween, gaude, shene, in sooth, aye, eschew, etc.; obsolete words, at least in these parts of the island, and only known to those that read our ancient authors, or such as imitate them.” Gray wrote that the word meed was obsolete in 1771. Yikes!

Yes, meed was common in bad poetry of the early Victorian period:
“O Wealth! to Misery’s claims awake;
Thy meed bestow for Pity’s sake!”

Still, I deem meed worthy of revival. It is a sturdy monosyllable of the earliest English (Old Saxon mede, akin to Old English meord ‘recompense, reward’). Its etymology harks back to our mother tongue, Proto-Indo-European, with noble cognates in modern German Miete ‘rent,’ Sanskrit midha ‘prize,’ Avestan mizda ‘reward,’ Old Church Slavonic (archaic Russian) мьзда mzda ‘payment, bribe’ and in ancient Greek from Homer right down to the New Testament μισθός misthos ‘wages, proper payment for a duty performed, a deed either good or bad.’

Meed has what I may call a sonic appropriateness; meed sounds like a just reward for labour, for talent, for service, for prized achievement. Meed may also signify just punishment for bad behaviour: “Ignominy is your meed, for you have sinned.”

It is useful in cheap jokes and puns: “I feel like I meed all the help I can get.” Yes, you may deserve it.

“They chose lovely Chryseis as the meed of Agamemnon.” And what a bride she was!

“. . . if only she could get her small meed of happiness first.”

“His research had already received its meed of praise from scholars.”

“Had they written for the meed of careful readers’ approval, their work would not be so full of careless errors.”

 So you see that, nowadays, meed in print is usually a mere synonym for ‘reward.’ But do look meed up in a comprehensive dictionary. Manifold are its other shades of meaning.

To end on a brief note of disambiguation, do not confuse meed with Mede ‘an ancient Persian.’ Media was an empire established in the 7th century BCE that included most of present-day Iran. One of my favorite American humorists, S.J. Perelman, punned splendidly upon it: “One man’s Mede is another man’s Persian.”

Bill Casselman, Sept 12, 2016

Copyright 2016 William Gordon Casselman

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