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This is a question my High School English teacher could not answer 20-odd years ago and every time I encounter it, it bugs me. I only know what it means in terms of other phrases such as 'per se'.

I have a general idea what it means, but I can't really wrap my head around it. 'As it were' when exactly?

Does anyone know the origin?

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It was pretty archaic:"God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn. Taken from Psalms which was written approx. 500-600B.C. –  Thursagen May 27 '11 at 22:25
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@Third Idiot, they probably weren't translated into English until a bit later. :) –  senderle May 27 '11 at 22:32
    
My thanks to all. I sleep better tonight now that this is finally resolved for me. –  Shane L Harris May 28 '11 at 0:13
    
It's one of those phrases that makes my skin crawl. I've noticed it is used a lot by pseudo intellectuals. –  user17624 Jan 31 '12 at 17:35
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4 Answers

The form were is a past subjunctive, and it is used in a construction that is common in hypothetical situations:

He would kill me if he were able.

She behaves as [would be fitting / etc.] if she were upper class.

The phrase is theoretically short for as [it would be if] it were [so], though it is uncertain whether that is really where it came from.

The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.) has its earliest quote from circa 1386:

As it were: as if it were so, if one might so put it, in some sort: a parenthetic phrase used to indicate that a word or statement is perhaps not formally exact though practically right.

  • c1386 Chaucer Nun's Pr. T. 26 She was as it were a maner deye.

  • 1399 Langl. P. Pl. C. ix. 22 Ich wolde a-saye som tyme for solas, as hit were.

  • 1531 Elyot Gov. (1834) 211 It draweth a man as it were by violence.

  • 1579 E. K. in Spenser's Sheph. Cal. Mar. 11 Gloss., The messenger, and as it were, the forerunner of springe.

  • 1692 E. Walker Epictetus' Mor. (1737) xxii, You're as it were the Actor of a Play.

  • 1711 Steele Spect. No. 32 31 She has thought fit, as it were, to mock herself.

  • 1881 Buchanan God & Man I. 124 She took him at once, as it were, into her confidence.

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According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it's quite an ancient phrase that emerged from an archaic form of the subjunctive mood:

a. Introducing a supposition, expressed by the subjunctive mood: As if, as though. arch.

1135 Anglo-Saxon Chron., Uuard þe sunne suilc als it uuare thre niht ald mone.

The OED dates its current sense to c1400:

c1400 (1387) Langland Piers Plowman (Huntington HM 137) C. ix. l. 22 Ich wolde a-saye som tyme for solas, as hit were.

c1405 (1390) Chaucer Nun's Priest's Tale (Hengwrt) (2003) l. 26 She was as it were a maner deye.

1531 T. Elyot Bk. named Gouernour iii. xi. sig. ci, It draweth a man as it were by violence.

A very rough modern English equivalent to the original phrase might be 'as if,' as in 'he reeled as if hit by a sledgehammer.'

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As if. A rough pragmatic equivalent perhaps, in formal English, but their syntax is quite different: as if always heads a tensed clause, while as it were is a clause, and a parenthetical one at that. Only in very informal English does one find parenthetical as if functioning this way. –  John Lawler Jan 31 '12 at 18:16
    
@JohnLawler, sorry, I take it that you disagree with something I say above, but I can't quite tell what... could you clarify? –  senderle Jan 31 '12 at 19:02
    
Your last sentence: "A rough grammatical equivalent in modern English might be 'as if,' as in 'he reeled as if hit by a sledgehammer.'" Pragmatically equivalent and semantically equivalent in some ways, but 'grammatically equivalent' is precisely what it's not. That's all. –  John Lawler Jan 31 '12 at 21:01
    
@JohnLawler, I wasn't trying to say "as if" in modern usage is equivalent to "as it were" in modern usage, as exemplified by the quotations from c1400 on. I was trying to say that "as if" in modern usage is roughly equivalent to "as it were" as used in the first quote from 1135, which I've seen rendered "the sun became such as if it were a three-nights’ old moon." But perhaps that rendering is wrong, or perhaps I'm misinterpreting things... –  senderle Jan 31 '12 at 21:54
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@JohnLawler, well, I completely understand you there. I guess I'll change it just to be safe. –  senderle Jan 31 '12 at 22:05
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Webster's 3rd New Int'l Dictionary gives it's meaning as:

as it were: as if it were so : in a manner of speaking <her triumph, as it were, did not last long >

The Oxford English Dictionary dates its first written usage by Chaucer c. 1386.

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I always thought the phrase was derived from as it were so and both wiktionary and textdriven.com seem to support this story.

Probably a truncation of "as it were so".

And

“As it were”—a curious, parenthetic phrase. As if it were so. A phrase used “to indicate that a word or statement is perhaps not formally exact though practically right”

I'm afraid that's as far as you're going to get. Unless someone has better ideas?

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