Strongness

The hymn Just as I am, without one plea (Charlotte Elliott) (or at least some versions of it) contains the verse

Just as I am – of that free love
The breadth, length, depth, and height to prove,
Here for a season, then above,
O Lamb of God, I come!

Breadth, length and depth, as well as width, are a small group of words in which the noun is formed from the adjective by changing the vowel and adding -th, which was obviously a standard procedure at one stage in the history of English. Height doesn’t quite fit, but heighth is a “chiefly dialectal” alternative. To these we might also add strong > strength. Alongside the noun is another formed by adding –ness to the adjective, and we can also add a verb ending with –en:  

broad – breadth/broadness – broaden
long – length/longness – lengthen
deep – depth/deepness – deepen
high – height/highness – heighten 
wide – width/wideness – widen 
strong – strength/strongness – strengthen 

In all cases, the –th noun the more common. One difference seems to be that the –th nouns are more literal, and the –ness nouns are more figurative: another hymn (Frederick William Faber) starts

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy 
like the wideness of the sea

(Also, ‘width’ wouldn’t fit the meter.)

ness is a very common and productive morpheme. –en is not; we can’t form new words that way, unless in jest. Note that broaden, deepen and widen are formed from the adjectives, while lengthen, heighten and strengthen are based on the the nouns, for reasons which aren’t immediately obvious.

It first I asterisked strongness as not existing: my native speaker intuition doesn’t accept it, and Pages for Mac and WordPress both red-underline it, but it’s in dictionaries. Google Ngrams even reports that it’s more common than wideness, which I unhesitatingly accept.

While researching this post, I also found Awake, O sleeper, rise from death (F Bland Tucker):

Awake, O sleeper, rise from death,
and Christ shall give you light; 
so learn his love – its length and breadth,
its fullness, depth and height. 

full – *fullth/fullness – *fullen/fill obviously doesn’t belong in this group of words

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3 thoughts on “Strongness

  1. “–en is not; we can’t form new words that way, unless in jest.” Like The Simpsons’ “embiggen,” which combines two methods of verbifying an adjective.

    “fullth” may not exist, but “foul” / “filth” does. (And “fulsome” is based on “foul”, not “full”, leading to the wideness of its misuse.) There’s no “foulen”, but there is “befoul”, and “defile” (which looks like a hybrid to me).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the examples. I should have thought of embiggen as an example.
      I would probably never use ‘fulsome’, but I might if I wanted to stealthily insult a person I didn’t like.

      Like

  2. Pingback: A vague vagary | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

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