Betwixt the dawning and the day it came
Upon me like a spell,
While tolled a distant bell,
A wondrous vision but without a name
In pomp of shining mist and shadowed flame,
Before me seemed to open awful Space,
And sheeted tower and spire
With forms of shrouded ’tire
Arose and beckoned with unearthly grace,
I felt a Presence though I saw no face
But the dark rolling fire.
So begins “The Beatific Vision” by Frederick William Orde Ward. Had I presented but the first line, you would have known already ’twas poesy. First line? First word, in sooth! Just as there are words that let you know you’re reading a news article (temblor, pontiff), there are words that declare poetry. Poetry! And tho this bit of rime lay ’twixt the pages of an ancient tome (well, 1927) that declared on its cover no more than “The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse” (the most mystical thing about which being how I come to have it – I think I know, but in recollection I feel a Presence but see no face), had I met it on a glowing screen I would still have known.
Betwixt! Betwixt you and me, it’s one heck of a word. Where between overweens, betwixt gets up to tricks. Between is a word for the ordinary, creaking like a screen door; betwixt snaps and cracks like a ghostly cat in the twigs and grass. Between is vegetables on your plate to join the meat of the nouns; betwixt is a candy bar (and you know very well which one).
Does betwixt mean just ‘between, but poetry!’? A word is known by the company it keeps, to be sure. But a word is also often conjectured by what it sounds like it should mean. Phonetic profiling. And I would venture to say that sometimes it’s also what it looks like it should mean. Any word with x has that nexus, that rarer character that conveys kisses and death, twining like a vine or a snippet of your DNA. Between is squeezed in a seat with strangers on either side; betwixt is fingers interlaced. Between is an afternoon meeting; betwixt is the witching hour.
Is betwixt the older word? They’re both plenty ancient, taken from the rhizomes of Anglo-Saxon. Between comes from the roots that give us by and twain. Betwixt comes from the same ‘by’ root plus the Germanic root that also grew to be German zwischen and Dutch tussen (formerly tusschen) – both of which mean ‘between’. But betwixt has a little bit more of the flavour of Old English. Any student of Old English will recognize it from a well-known passage of the book of Genesis in Ælfric’s translation:
God cwæð tō ðǣre nǣddran: For ðan ðe ðū ðis dydest, ðū bist āwyrġed betweox eallum nȳtenum and wildēorum.
See that betweox? That’s betwixt, Old English version. The passage means “God said to the serpent: Because you did this, you are cursed among all beasts of the field and wild animals.” Yes, betwixt could mean ‘among’ at that time. In the next sentence (spelled slightly differently, but the same word) it translates to between:
Iċ sette fēondrǣdenne betwux ðē and ðām wīfe and ðīnum ofspringe and hire ofspringe
“I put enmity between you and the woman and your offspring and her offspring.”
You may notice something’s missing: the t at the end – it was betweox or betwux, not betweoxt or betwuxt. The t was occasionally already getting tacked on at that time, for reasons “either phonetic or analogical,” as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. That is to say, it just showed up because it seemed like it should be there, like the “t” that some people say on the end of once. But it didn’t become standard until rather late in the game – after 1500 or so.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how words are like dishes? Some you use regularly because you need them and they seem utile enough; others you keep for more special occasions because they’re pretty and perhaps you have a more ordinary version of the same to use the rest of the time. We’ll drink wine from IKEA glasses but really good wine from the crystal we got as gifts or bought in silent auction; we’ll have coffee in mugs that are nice enough but fading and staining with time, but for fancy coffees (Irish, anyone?) the glass cups with their zarfs or the fancy picture mugs will be produced. So, too, with some words: we manage to set aside some glorious old ones for special use. We may not know for sure where and how we got them, but when they come out we know it is an Occasion, above and beyond the ordinary: they beckon with unearthly grace in pomp of shining mist, a wondrous vision betwixt the dawning and the day. (Or perhaps betwixt supper and sleep.)