smite, smote, smitten

One of the great classic Far Side cartoons by Gary Larsen is captioned “God at His computer”; it shows the deity (looking like the same bloke from the Sistine Chapel) at a computer, on the screen of which we see some schlimazel walking down the street as a piano is hanging on a rope above his head, and God is about to press a button on His keyboard labelled SMITE.

Ah, smite. The word struck me most recently in a chorus I (and the Mendlessohn Choir) have been singing from Handel’s Israel in Egypt: “He smote all the first-born of Egypt…” Yes, the word reeks of Biblical death. Of course we know that in general it means “strike, hit” and that “kill” is an extended sense in the same way as “copulate with” is an extended sense of lie with (or, for that matter, know in, as they say, the Biblical sense). But it is now a deliberately archaic word – that is, it is actually still used more often than many words that are seen as perfectly current (e.g., slug, cuff), but it calls forth an antiquated tone; it has the honeyed, dusty smell of foxed old books. Try these variations (related words served up by

I will hit you.
I will beat you.
I will strike you.
I will punch you.
I will smack you.
I will thump you.
I will thrash you.
I will smite you.
I will slug you.
I will cuff you.

Some are more specific than others, some more colloquial than others. But only smite carries the weight of divine justice, of a great Gothic fist, of a rusty broadsword, of some great hero or medieval ogre; if you are smitten, you don’t just fall, you are laid low.

Ah, though, smitten. That’s a different case, isn’t it? Yes, it’s the past participle of smite, but that’s not its main use. Go to and look the two up. With smite you get three branches: one, “inflict a heavy blow on,” leads to hit; one, “cause physical pain or suffering in,” leads to afflict; one, “affect suddenly with deep feeling,” leads to affect, strike, move, impress. With smitten you get two: one, “(used in combination) affected by something overwhelming,” leads to stricken and struck; the other, “marked by foolishness or unreasoning fondness,” leads to enamored, in love, infatuated, potty, soft on, taken with. All of a sudden it’s not the grave God with the long white beard ready to send a thunderbolt or press the smite button; it’s the cherubic little Cupid with his little arrows ready to pierce you through the heart with an unwonted fondness.

There are always a lot of reasons for shifts in sense: historical influences, chances of usage, little fads, great literary references. The King James Bible has done much to preserve and enhance smite; as it has passed out of common unmarked usage, some of the extended senses have fallen away – you would not now say, as you could 250 years ago, She smote him and mean “He was smitten with her” (by her, yes; with her, no), but it has kept and reinforced its majestic might. Smitten has through most of its history had a distribution largely the same as that of smite, and a fair bit of figurative use for affliction by any strong emotion (not just love), but perhaps its use by such lights as Pepys and Thackeray in the “infatuated” sense has added to its tilt in that direction as an adjective (as opposed to as a past participle proper – the latter takes “by” and the former more often “with”).

And just perhaps it has some cutesy air from echoes of kitten and mitten. It does also rhyme with bitten and written, true, but, then, you can be bitten by the love bug too, or so it is written. It is at any rate a lighter, cuter sound than that of smite; smitten has quick vowels and a bit of pitter-patter in middle stop, as though just bouncing off the surface. Smite has that diphthong swinging down, /aɪ/, and a sudden stop at the end, without bounce, and it echoes with might and spite. Yes, and more weakly with white, kite, write, slight, and so on.

And smote? Does the past tense lack the sharpness of the present? The vowel is mid back to high back rounded, not low central to high front unrounded, and that tends to give it a duller, hollower air. The echoes are more of smoke and mote (another very Biblical term now). I find it seems more natural to say it on a lower note than smite (try this: say “I will smite him” and then “I smote him” – is there a difference in pitch for you?). An old alternate form would have made it smate; either way, it’s a case of ablaut, vowel gradation, common enough in English “strong” verbs. It’s not that there’s something intrinsically past about the sound; indeed, when Dr. Zamenhof invented Esperanto, he made as the present tense verbal suffix (havas, “have”), is the past tense (havis, “had”), and os the future tense (havos, “will have”). But o is further back in the mouth, so if you match that to the ablaut pattern to take it as the past, it seems natural enough.

Now, naturally, a word as majestic as smite is readily amenable to being used jokingly, ironically, in a cutesy sense, as you might imagine. Indeed, deliberate archaisms used anew in the present always come with quotation marks, as it were, and so with a wink and a nudge. The word is just too solemn to use entirely ingenuously; it would bespeak an excessive pomposity. Thus smite, too, releases a little kitten while it conjures a massive medieval ogre wielding a mace. You expect it from geeks in role-playing games. Or in other playful contexts, as perhaps from some masochist: “She said ‘I’ll smite you,’ and she smote me; I was smitten by her, and I was smitten with her.” So mote it be.

5 responses to “smite, smote, smitten

  1. There is a nice line in ‘The Simpsons’ —
    Homer:: “The lesson is: Our God is vengeful! O spiteful one, show me who to smite and they shall be smoten!!!”

  2. I’ve always been struck(stricken?) by the evolution of strong verbs in English. Byroin intones, “The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece/Where burning Sappho loved and sung.” It wouldn’t have worked if he used the simple past; the second line would have connoted a ho-hum response from most readers. By the same token, it drives me wild to hear someone comment about a movie they dislike and say, “I thought it stunk!’ or to read a movie title like “Honey, I shrunk the kids!”

  3. I found this post while trying to figure out why everything changes when this word changes tense! I linked to your piece in my blog; thanks for not smiting me.

  4. Pingback: Mittens, Smitten | peachyteachy

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