Hope (Help)

Blast from the past.

Dear Word Detective:  While this is not of earth-shaking importance, I hope you can “hope” me out of this quandary.  As I was growing up during the Great Depression in rural East Texas, my grandmother used the word “hope” to mean “help.”  She also used the word “help,” but maybe with a slightly different meaning.  Was this just ignorance on her part, a holdover from her Irish heritage or is there an etymological basis for this usage?  She wasn’t the only one who used “hope” in this sense; many aunts (pronounced “aints”) used the word in the same sense. —   Morgan, New Mexico.

Thanks for a great question.  It may not be earth-shaking, but it’s exactly the kind I like, namely one that leads me down an unfamiliar trail.  My initial suspicion was that this was simply a question of unusual pronunciation (on a par with “aints” for “aunts”) that had become standard in a region, but it turned out to be a more complicated and interesting story.

George Bernard Shaw is often quoted as saying that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language,” referring to the many differences between US and British vocabulary and usage.  But if  Shaw had spent a few months hitchhiking around the US (there’s a screenplay for you), he’d probably have concluded that America actually spoke at least fifty varieties of English all by itself.  American English is a patchwork of dialects, many of which can seem pretty mysterious to an outsider, and it’s not unusual to find a regional word or usage, unknown in (or long ago dropped from) the mainstream national vocabulary, alive and well outside our large cities.  Fortunately, there are scholars cataloging and preserving these regional quirks.  The most ambitious project in this field, the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), now stands at four large volumes and its dedicated staff is still out there collecting.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that your grandmother was not ignorant or eccentric, and she was far from alone in her use of what sounded like “hope” to mean “help.”

Our modern English word “help,” both the noun and verb form, is very old, drawn from the Old English “helpan” (meaning “to help”), which in turn was derived from the Proto-Germanic root “kelb,” which also produced the equivalent of “help” in a number of other European languages.  The general sense of “help” has been “to aid, to assist,” with various related meanings added along the way, such as “to help” meaning “to serve food to,” which gave us our modern “helping” meaning “a portion of food.”

In modern usage, the verb “to help” follows the standard English conjugation form in number and tense (I help, she helps, they help, they helped, etc.), but it was not always so simple.  “Help” retained, in various English dialects, the old forms of irregular English verbs (as in “begin/ began/ begun” or “sleep/slept”) well into the 18th century, and the traces of this “irregularity” persist in some regional dialects, including in the American South (which, for linguistic purposes, includes Texas).  The specific archaic form of “help” that persists to this day in the region is “holpe,” “holp” or (tada!) “hope” used as various tenses of “help.”  This “hope” is indistinguishable in pronunciation from “hope” meaning “wish for.”  So your grandmother was actually saying “help,” but she was saying it in a very old way.

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