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shameless pleading

Go / Went

With all thy going, get lost.

Dear Word Detective: I understand (unless you tell me otherwise) that the principal parts of the verb “to go” are really parts to two different words: “go” and “wend,” viz. “went,” the past tense of “to go,” being the pluperfect of “wend.” If that is so, what, originally was the simple past of “to go” and how did “went” sneak in there? And was (or is) “to wander” related to “wend” in some way? — David Hendon.

Whoa. Excuse me, for a minute there the room was spinning like a roulette wheel. Oddly enough, when it stopped, my mind (which resembles a small steel ball to an uncanny degree) settled on a famous line from Saki (pen name of Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916)) about the difficulty of retaining household staff: “The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go, she went.” I’m sure you’re all thinking, along about now, “My, what a clever man. I wish I had literary quotations leaping into my mind right when I need them.” Unfortunately, I originally remembered that line as involving a maid, not a cook, and consequently wasted about an hour looking for the source of a quotation that didn’t actually exist. But even my mangled version involved two senses of “go” and one of “went,” so I still get ten points.

“Go” is, of course, one of the oldest and most basic English words, first appearing in Old English as “gan,” based on the Indo-European root “ghe.” The general connotation of “to go” is to move, either literally or figuratively, in most senses away from a point (contrasted with “to come,” generally expressing movement towards the speaker’s position). Summarizing all the uses to which the English language has put “go” is seriously impractical here (the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists 48 senses of the word, most with at least four or five sub-senses). We are, after all, talking about a word, originally connoting physical motion, that is now regularly used (sense 44) to mean “To pass into a certain condition. Chiefly implying deterioration” (OED), as in “to go rogue,” “to go missing” and “to go medieval on someone.” The first “go” in that Saki quotation (“as cooks go”) reflects sense 15, “To have ordinarily a certain degree or range of value, amount, excellence, etc.” (“It was a good enough luncheon, as hotels go,” 1872). The second “go” reflects the original basic sense of “to leave a place.”

“Wend” also first appeared in Old English (in the form “wendan”), from Germanic roots carrying the general sense of “to turn or go.” In use as a transitive verb, “to wend” meant to turn something or change its direction. In intransitive use, however, it eventually meant not just to turn, but “to turn away, go, depart,” especially “to travel in a certain direction.” This is the primary sense in use today, and when we speak of “wending our way home” we’re really just saying “going home,” although “wend” tends to carry a connotation of a more casual pace and perhaps a more roundabout route than usual. (“Wend,” as you suspected, does indeed come from the same Germanic roots that produced “wander.”)

In Old and Middle English “go” (“gan” at that time) only existed in the present tense “ga” and the past participle “gegan”; for the past tense we used “eode” (later, in Middle English, “yede” or “yode”), which actually belonged to another long-obsolete Germanic verb also meaning “go.” The verb “to wend” (“wendan” in Old English) was a bit more conventional, with the past tense and past participle of, respectively, “wende” and “wended.” But, beginning in the 13th century, those forms sometimes appeared as “wente” and “went,” and those spellings eventually became standard.

During this same period of time, “to go” and “to wend” came to be used as synonyms, and “wend” actually began to fade from use, at least in the present tense. So it’s not surprising that people started using the past tense of “wend,” which was “went,” as the past tense of “to go.” Poor little “wend,” having been effectively robbed of its past tense “went,” developed a new past tense, “wended,” still in use today.

So, long story short, the past tense of “to go” is “went,” not because “went” developed organically from “go,” but because people using “go” just decided to use it. It’s a long and confusing story, but it’s also a vivid illustration of the fact that English was developed by the people speaking it, not by some committee or commission.

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