Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Mailbag Friday: "Widespreadly"?

For today's Mailbag Friday, we hear from Barbara Z. of Norfolk, VA. She writes: "On the radio I was listening to the beginning of "The Thomas Jefferson Hour" in which Clay Jenkinson speaks as if he were Jefferson.  I heard him say the following:

'I happen to live in the first great era when books were widespreadly available...'

"Widespreadly? That one is new to me!"

Mr. Jenkinson's impersonation of Thomas Jefferson is an impressive feat. He holds forth extemporaneously as if Jefferson had time-warped to the present day, and since Jefferson was known as a voracious polymath, he covers a diverse range of topics. (Past shows are archived here. The sentence above occurs in Show 731, "Influential Books," but you can also hear Jenkinson-as-Jefferson muse on everything from terrorism to Greek and Latin.)

Historical reenactors are always careful to avoid committing anachronisms. We wouldn't want to see a role-player at Colonial Williamsburg whipping out an iPhone, for instance. (A recent episode of "South Park" lampooned the earnest authenticity of reenactors who never break character.) But Jenkinson's use of widespreadly was not an anachronistic modernism put into the mouth of Jefferson. Nor was it a genuine lexical artifact of the Jeffersonian era that he salvaged for the occasion. As best as I can tell, widespreadly would have sounded just as odd two centuries ago as it does now.

There are actually some adverbs ending in -ly that were acceptable in early modern English but are no longer considered standard. Take adjectives that already end in -ly, like friendly, manly, costly, and deadly. If you used friendlily, manlily, costlily, or deadlily now, most people would look at you funny. But that wasn't always the case. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains in its entry for -ly:

It was, down to the 17th c., somewhat frequently attached, with this function, even to adjs. in -ly, as earlily, godlily, kindlily, livelily, lovelily, statelily; but these formations are now generally avoided as awkward, while on the other hand it is felt to be ungraceful to use words like godly, goodly, lovely, mannerly, timely, as advs.; the difficulty is usually evaded by recourse to some periphrastic form of expression.

Periphrastic, the VT tells us, means "roundabout and unnecessarily wordy." But really, we're being necessarily wordy when we say "in a friendly manner/way/tone" instead of friendlily, since the single-word form has been "blocked" by the -ly ending already present on the adjective. Similarly, Jenkinson could only have rephrased his sentence to avoid widespreadly, changing it to "...when books were available on a widespread basis," or simply "...when books were widely available." (Nothing too roundabout about that.)

So why does widespreadly sound wrong to most speakers of American or British English? (It may be acceptable in other varieties of World English; a search on Google Scholar, for instance, turns up hundreds of examples from writers in Asia and elsewhere, though many of them may be non-native speakers of English.) It has to do with the composition of the adjective widespread, which combines the modifier wide with the past participle spread.

Spread is one of those irregular verbs where the past participle is the same as the base form, like burst, come, hurt, run, shut, and split. Other irregular verbs have less predictable past participial forms; they often end in -en or -n, like shave - shaven or grow - grown, but sometimes the vowel sound in the base form is changed, like wear - worn or speak - spoken. Regular verbs, meanwhile, form their past participles simply by adding -ed or -d, and we seem to be much better at creating adverbs from them: think of doggedly, excitedly, half-heartedly, mean-spiritedly, pointedly, and unexpectedly.

Try to make an adverb out of an irregular past participle, or a compound adjective ending in one like widespread, and you're asking for trouble. Ill-advisedly, ill-naturedly, and ill-temperedly all sound fine, but ill-bredly, ill-chosenly, or ill-shapenly? Not so much. As with widespread, we have to resort to periphrastic measures to express these words adverbially, like "in an ill-bred manner" or "in an ill-chosen fashion."

The amazing thing is that native English speakers know rules like this one without ever having been taught them explicitly. It's all part of English morphology, or the internal structure of words. So what happened to Clay Jenkinson's morphology? I think it was just a speaking error: he was probably juggling "books were widely available" and "books were widespread" and came up with a blended version, "widespreadly available." Such slip-ups happen even to the most careful speakers of English. I bet they even happened to Thomas Jefferson.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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