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Quotation from A History of the Cries of London: Ancient and Modern

Oh, dearly do I love “Old Cries,”
 Your “Lilies all a’blowing!”
Your blossoms blue, still wet wih dew,
 “Sweet Violets all a’growing!”

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I don't have my OED in front of me now, but I think this is a ME construction a + gerund which derives from the OE 'dative infinitive' with on. It's more often spelt a-. It lingered fairly late in dialect -- e.g. "don't look at him while I'm a-telling it" from Martin Chuzzlewit -- but it's probably no longer productive except in self-consciously "folkish" or archaic contexts. –  StoneyB Oct 5 '12 at 14:34
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Possible duplicate of The times they are a-changin' –  RegDwigнt Oct 5 '12 at 14:35
    
@RegDwighт I think it is a duplicate; but I think (I'm not sure) the answer there is in important respects wrong. –  StoneyB Oct 5 '12 at 14:55
    
@tchrist Barrie England has stepped up to the plate; can these questions/answers be merged? –  StoneyB Oct 5 '12 at 15:41
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Another related question: english.stackexchange.com/questions/45886/… –  tenfour Oct 5 '12 at 18:31

2 Answers 2

Entries in the OED suggest that in both words the a- prefix is derived ultimately from the preposition on, which is used, as in your examples, before the -ing forms of verbs to give the sense of ‘engaged in’. The OED has, for example, this citation from 1883:

Now let us run out and look at the flowers and the trees all agrowing and ablowing.

One of the meanings of blow, which it clearly has here, is ‘to burst into flower; to blossom, bloom’.

The OED’s earliest record of agrowing is dated 1605. Ablowing is found in Old English, but with the medical sense of ‘swelling’ or ‘distension’.

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Wikipedia says the a- prefix is used to form a predicative adjective with progressive aspect.

OED gives a dozen or more origins/meanings for the a- prefix, but I must admit I can't see any there that really correspond to OP's examples except #11, where it says the force of the prefix is so little apparent, that the derivatives in a- hardly differ in sense (in respect of, say, rise/arise, wake/awake).

So I think in OP's particular examples, the a- prefix either means nothing at all (effectively OED's take), or it can be seen as replicating/emphasising the progressive aspect of the verb (which is also being done by the -ing "suffix" anyway).

The apostrophe in OP's case is arbitrary (you could replace it with a hyphen, or nothing at all).

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Look at senses 12 and 13 of OED a- prep 1. Or see the chatlog from earlier today. –  tchrist Oct 5 '12 at 17:49
    
I wonder if we’re looking at the same OED. Definition 11 in the first entry for the prefix in the online OED <oed.com/view/Entry/8#eid2874815>; has ‘Expressing action, with a verbal noun or gerund taken actively. Now arch. and regional’. 11a has ‘After "be" (or occasionally another verb expressing state) and before a verbal noun: engaged in (some activity).’ –  Barrie England Oct 5 '12 at 17:58
    
@Barrie: They won't be the same - my OED is a "bent" electronic copy from a few years back, but obviously you have access to latest edition (I can't follow your link because I'm an unexpectedly impecunious pensioner who can't afford the subscription). But really, how much could OED's understanding of this prefix change in 2-3 decades? –  FumbleFingers Oct 5 '12 at 18:37
    
@FumbleFingers: I, too, am an imp. pen., if not an unex. one, but if you have a UK public library card you can get a free subscription. –  Barrie England Oct 5 '12 at 18:42
    
@Barrie: I didn't know that! I just assumed "Institutional subscribers" meant people coat-tailing whatever school/college they worked at. I'm ashamed to say I didn't get a new library card when I moved a few years ago, but my lodger is always telling me I should. I'll follow that one up, thanks. –  FumbleFingers Oct 5 '12 at 20:24

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