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Lo and behold

Q From Kristin OKeefe: Where does the phrase lo and behold come from? How long has it been in the language? I Googled it and saw that the first known usage is from 1808, but it seems older than that.

A It seems older because both parts of the phrase are essentially archaic. It reminds us of the phraseology of early English language editions of the Bible, such as the King James version of 1611. But lo and behold doesn’t appear in that edition (nor, as far as I can tell, in any other). But the individual words most certainly do, often close to each other:

And Abram said, Behold, to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir.

Genesis, chapter 15 verse 3, King James Bible, 1611.

The two words have closely similar meanings, being commands to draw attention to an interesting or amazing event or to imply “listen carefully, I’m going to tell you something important”. Lo is a shortening of the Old English imperative form of the verb look; behold in such cases is also an imperative, from the verb meaning to keep in view.

At some point — the evidence suggests it was sometime in the eighteenth century — people began to put the two words together to make a humorously reinforced form that might be translated as “behold this wondrous happening”. It was regarded as too colloquial or irreligious at first to be used in respectable publications, which is why our earliest examples are from personal letters. The one you mention is in a letter of 1808 in the published correspondence of Lady Lyttelton, much later to become lady of the bedchamber to Queen Victoria and governess to her children: “Lo and behold! M. Deshayes himself appeared”.

This is earlier by half a century:

Here was I sat down, full of Love and Respect to write my dearest Friends a dutiful and loving letter, when lo, and behold! I was made happy by the receipt of yours.

In a letter by Miss N-- to the actor and playwright Thomas Hull, dated 22 July 1766. It was included in Select letters Between the Late Duchess of Somerset, Lady Luxborough, Mr Whistler, ... and Others, which Hull edited and published in two volumes in 1778.

By the 1820s, it had become common. It’s still so, though we can only utter it self-consciously as a humorous linguistic relic. We can use it to refer to some notionally surprising event that isn’t really so surprising because it has been predicted.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 2 October 2010.