Hit the road.

Dear Word Detective: The phase “to wend one’s [merry] way” has a meaning which appears obvious — kinda. What does the verb “to wend” actually mean and can you “wend” anything other than your way? I hope you can help; I’ve not slept all day worrying about that one. — Andy.

Hi, Andy. Your boss has asked me to ask you to stop by his office before you leave for the day. Apparently the new pillow you ordered has arrived.

wend08.pngIt’s true that “wend” is rarely found today outside the form “wend [one’s] way,” and even then it’s almost always used in a jocular or sarcastic sense (“Jones, perhaps this afternoon you could wend your way back to your desk and do some actual work”). When words come to be used only in such fixed phrases, it’s usually a sign that we’re dealing with a linguistic fossil, as in the case of “deserts” in “just deserts,” derived from the French “deservir,” meaning “to deserve.” This “deserts,” meaning “appropriate reward,” was once common in English, but today is heard almost only in that fixed phrase. (Incidentally, “desert,” the very empty place, comes from the Latin “deserere,” meaning “to abandon,” and “dessert,” post-dinner sweets, comes from the French word “disservir,” meaning “to clear the table.”)

“Wend” is just such a fossil, but, as we shall see, it has some very lively relatives. The source of “wend” is the ancient Germanic root “wand,” meaning “to turn,” which also gave us “wander” (to walk while turning this way and that), “wand” (originally a flexible, easily “turned” stick), and “wind” (to gather up by turning). In Old English, “wend” originally meant “to turn” or “turn over,” and acquired a variety of figurative meanings, ranging from “to change one’s mind” to “to translate” (to “turn” from one language to another) to “to die” (“to wend away”).

By the 13th century, however, “wend” was more often being used to mean “to go or journey in a certain way or direction,” and enjoyed a brief heyday as a popular verb in this sense. But “to wend” was always in competition with “to go,” and eventually “go” won out as the more common verb, leaving “wend” to the poets. “Wend” in fact, nearly disappeared between 1600 and 1800, when it was resurrected in the fixed phrase “to wend one’s way.”

But a final indignity awaited “wend.” Its past tense and participle forms were originally “wende” and “wended” or “wend,” but by around 1200 “wente” and “went” became popular in those roles. But when “wend” began to fade from use around 1500, the word “went” was gradually adopted as the past tense form of “to go” (which is how we use “went” today). From that point on, people who wanted to use “wend” in the past tense had to use “wended,” which is nowhere near as cool as the “went” hijacked by “go.” But, in language as in life, to the victors go (not, you’ll notice, “wend”) the spoils.

4 comments on this post.
  1. Wendy Went:

    I like went as past tense of wend especially for 21st century use. Let just put the wend back into went, and keep is easy to say.

  2. Wendy Went:

    Also it would be nice, as a side note, to correctly say, Wendy went her way through wormwood woods.

  3. Jim:

    I found this discussion because I was wondering about the past tense of “wend”… “wended” sounds too clumsy. Frankly, I was hoping to find that it was “wound”, which I think would still be a reasonable substitute, considering the etymology of both words in the sense of “turning”.

  4. Elizabeth R.:

    I had wished that the past tense of “wend” was “wend”. Perhaps if English were more concerned with the aesthetic, or if there were a governing Academy as the French have, “wended” would be as incorrect as it is clumsy.

    As it is, I hope this word will continue to be available to describe going or returning in a meandering way, rather than relegated to an archaic status.

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