Far from the madding crowd

The latest movie version of Far from the madding crowd is being advertised and previewed. When I first saw the title (of either the book or an earlier movie version) many years ago, I first processed the fourth word as maddening.

The adjective mad dates from ‘before 900’, which is a far back as reliable written evidence of English is available. Dictionary.com marks the verb mad ‘archaic’ without separately listing a date for it. The adjective madding dates from 1300-50, predating the verb madden (1725-35) and the adjective maddening (1735-45) by about 400 years.

In 1751, Thomas Gray wrote the poem ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, which begins with the famous line ‘The curfew tolls the knell of parting day’. A later line is ‘Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife’. At that time, madding was still the more common form, but even if Gray was aware of the new form maddening, he had to choose the old form madding to fit the meter.

Maddening overtook madding in the 1790s, and by 1874, when Thomas Hardy wrote the book, it  was far more common, though the citizens of Hardy’s Wessex used older and/or dialectual varieties of English. Hardy’s book seems to have caused a slight revival of madding through to about 1900.

These words can be compared and contrasted with the roughly equivalent words glad and sad.

The adjective glad also dates from ‘before 900’, and the verb is also ‘archaic’. The verb gladden and the adjective gladdening date from ‘1250-1300’. The adjective sad dates from ‘before 1000’. Dictionary.com does not record the verb sad or the adjective sadding, but the latter shows up on Google Ngrams. The verb sadden dates from ‘1590-1600’; the adjective saddening is listed as a related form of sadden rather than having its own page.

Intriguingly, maddening, saddening, gladdening have all declined in usage over the last 150 years – the latter two from 1850 onwards, the former from 1950 onwards.

Choral singers know the word gladdening from John Keble’s translation of the ancient Greek hymn Φῶς Ἱλαρόν (Phos Hilaron), either to the hymn-tune by Sir John Stainer or the anthem by Charles Wood. Despite the Greek word ‘Hilaron’ and the Latin ‘hilare’, no English translation uses ‘hilarious light’. Other translations exist: gentle, gladsome, joyful, radiant, gracious, joyous.


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