Smite, Smote, . . . Smitten?

So, frustration reached the point earlier this week that I had to either kill something (on paper) or write about someone who had been asking for it getting a lesson in “why you stop arguing before your hair stands on end and the sky turns black.” I chose option B, since it would go into what I’m supposed to be working on anyway.

Which led me to trying to decide what the passive past tense of “to smite” should be. And I found it, but it has become one of those words that, at least in American English, doesn’t mean that anymore.

“To smite” comes from the same family of verbs as “to write.” Everyone is aware of:

I write, I wrote, I had written. Or “The letter was written with a quill pen.” No one blinks at the construction.

However:

The gods will smite him. Lightning smote the tree. He was smitten by the wrath of Zeus.

To begin with, most of us don’t use “to smite” in everyday speech. It is somewhat archaic, often considered formal, and we’re more likely to use strike or hit to describe the action, unless a deity is involved, or we are being poetic.

When we use “smitten,” it most often refers to a romantic infatuation, or a quasi-romantic infatuation. “He was totally smitten with her.” Sort of like “besotted,” but with a milder, less negative sense. At core, the meaning is the same. One person is struck with an emotion the same way trees are struck by lightning. The modern sense is restricted to love, infatuation, puppy-love, and the like. “She was smitten by his charms” calls to mind a young woman sighing dreamily as an attractive young man walks past her table at the cafe, completely unaware that she’s staring at him. Or more humorously, a young man staring at a bar-maid, and the rest of his table knows darn well that he doesn’t have a prayer of getting her phone number.

So back to the original problem. I can’t end the scene with one character staring at a pile of ash and declaring in awe filled tones, “He was smitten by the gods!” My readers are going to fall out of their chairs (or off their couches) laughing, because the modern meaning collides with the scene in the book.

Oh, the trials and tribulations of being a writer!

23 thoughts on “Smite, Smote, . . . Smitten?

  1. “The Gods smote him down!”, but it’s not past-perfect. Well, no time like the present to use the correct verb form.

  2. As one of those who would have fallen out of their chair, I would have appreciated the wordplay.

    In fact, I’d have been smitten with it.

  3. Snerk… Luke nailed my comment… I am smitten by the author’s ability to create believable characters and great stories! 😉

  4. I….am SMYTHE, the smiter!!!! Anger me NOT, for I have many more smites to smit! (like those Mexican bandidos with criss-crossed bandoleers). And mighty smites I smitted!

  5. I feel like I should make use of this knowledge somehow.

    Maybe have a very dumb character use the correct word, like; “You will be smote.” “Wait, what?” “What? I’m smitten, you will be, too. She smites almost everyone, very nice person, pretty, and…” *polite pause with not at all polite smirk* “…Wonderful personality?”

  6. Only in America – it makes perfect sense in English-English… “He was smitten down by … ” whatever dreadful scourge we can think of these days – COVID-19 , probably…

    • US English seems to be dropping verb forms and changing the past perfect to -ed for everything. I’m not sure if this is because of how grammar is or is not taught, or if popular culture’s push for informality and false equality encourages shedding anything that might be “elite” or “hoity-toity.”

      • Writers are urged away from the progressive aspect because it is ‘less impactful’. And some maleducated ‘teachers of English’ in HS and even college mark every ‘ing’ off as passive, even if it is a participle or gerund, likewise ‘was’ and ‘were’, even when they stand alone as copulas.

        The prejudice against the progressive aspect and expressions like ‘began to’ show up on a workshopping site I use. (Would that other ‘progressive’ things earned that ire.)

        • “Impact” in anything other than 1) the medical sense and 2) the astronomical or “to hit” sense makes my ears hurt. “Impactful” makes my teeth ache and my ears bleed. When my legions of flying monkeys take over the world and make me empress, enforcing proper usage of certain much-abused words will be high on my priority list. I will probably hum a certain patter song from _The Mikado_ as my legions carry out the sentences.

  7. The King James translation of the Bible supports the difference in connotation between British and American English.(British English connotation of smitten as past perfect of smite, whereas American coronation of smitten as love sick, enamored). Exodus 7:25 “had smitten the river” , Exodus 9:31 “flax was smitten “ and of course Isaiah 53:4 “surely he was stricken , smitten by God”. Though the last is the same in the more recent English Standard Version.

    • The Geneva Translation has “smitten” for Exodus 7:25, “were smitten” for 9:31 (lists flax and barley), and “smitten of G-d” for Isiah 53:4. The Tanakh also keeps “smitten/was smitten” for Isiah, and shifts to “ruined” for Exodus 9:31. 7:25 has ” . . . after the LORD struck the Nile . . .” The New International Version seems to follow the Tanakh.

      I’m not surprised that the Geneva matches the King James, since they are near contemporaries. It would be interesting to see when the meaning shift began in American English.

        • I think my subconscious write the original word (now changed). Based on conversations over the past ten years, grammar is not really taught in many grade schools. Spelling was specifically omitted for a while, “because expressing ideas is more important.” Parental screaming, and junior-high-teacher screaming brought an end to that, or so I was told.

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