Will.Whim

A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

In the midst of it

A note I wrote to the Fasola discussion list, on whether ‘midst’ is archaic or not

Although my mama warned me never to discuss language usage in public forums, let me weigh in here a bit …

Here is the line from “On the swiftness of Time” posted by Jesse Pearlman Karlsberg:

Unthinking man! remember this,
Thou, 'midst thy sublunary bliss,
Must groan, and gasp, and die!

I think what is ‘archaic’ (that is, no longer in common use) about the use of midst here is its use as a preposition. I don’t have much data at my finger tips, but I think that US speakers (even in the south) would now tend to say ‘in the midst of’ or perhaps ‘amid.’

For example, from some emails I’ve written or received:

We are in the midst of several technological debates ...
Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict ...
It was in the midst of structural repairs to its foundation ...

Try putting ‘midst’ in place of ‘in the midst of’ in the phrases above, and I think you will probably agree they sound ‘archaic’:

We are midst several technological debates ...
Peacemaking midst violence and conflict ...
It was midst structural repairs to its foundation ...

Interestingly, Dr. Johnson’s dictionary says ‘midst’ comes from ‘the middest’, which Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary repeats, but I think the modern concensus is that it comes from Middle English ‘middes,’ that is, the very archaic genitive form of ‘mid.’ For example the Online Etymological Dictionary says:

c.1400, from M.E. middes (1340), from O.E. mid + adv. gen. -s.
The parasitic -t is perhaps on model of superlatives.

I’m quite sure that ‘midst’ is not a contraction for ‘amidst.’ In fact, I’m quite sure that things go the other direction: ‘amid[st]’ is based on the root form mid[st], with the periphrastic ‘a-‘, as in ‘anew,’ ‘abreast,’ see the Online Eytmological Dictionary entry. It would be easy to construe it as such, though, and this would account for ‘midst in the poetry above.

[In the midst/a-]Mid[st] [of] pleasures and palaces,
Will Fitzgerald

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