What exactly does the phrase 'Woe is me' mean? A google search returns many results ranging from FML to just having a bad day. There are many references to the phrase being grammatically incorrect and thus meaning nothing, but it seems like it is in use. So, is the phrase acceptable in common English despite being grammatically incorrect? Or is it, infact, grammatically correct?

Edit: What I was able to find using Google:

  1. Phrases.org.uk: "I am distressed; sad; grieved."
  2. onlinecollege: "Woe is me: It sounds a bit like Yoda-ese, but instead of saying FML, go biblical with "woe is me."
  3. UrbanDictionary: "Both answers that tried to explain are incorrect in explaining the grammaticality of the phrase. The verb "to be" is an intransitive verb, meaning it cannot take an object." (Refer to the link for complete text)
  • It is an idiom. Its use has broadened from that of centuries ago (when it meant something like 'I'm finished!'); it is only used in period dramas or humorously (usually for something as trivial as 'I've lost ten cents' / 'I have to work next Saturday') nowadays. It is an extra-grammatical idiom (not using standard grammar) but that by no means makes it 'wrong'. Idioms by definition are idiosyncratic in some way. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 29 '15 at 21:17

Woe is me!

Lack-a-day.

Misery me,

These are all morose phrases, They can be strung together, or prefaced by Ah, or Alas, but apart from that whatever the grammar, they are unalterable. Don't try Woe is he! or Lack-a-year.

The tone is archaic, often self-deprecating, and mock-heroic.

  • 2
    Your answer seems confirmed by the OED entry b. very freq. in woe is me (occas. †to, unto me)): I am distressed, afflicted, unfortunate, grieved. Now only arch. and dial. with examples from 1240 to 1892. – WS2 Dec 29 '15 at 21:34

woe is a noun/interjection meaning misery, sorrow, misfortune, etc. (Note that this is different from the homophone whoa which is a command to, eg, a horse, to stop.)

"Woe is me" is an idiom likely borrowed from hundreds of years ago (hence the odd syntax) which could be read as "Woe has befallen me". In other words, I am suffering (or about to suffer) some intense misery or misfortune.

Whether the syntax is broken or not depends on how you look at it. One can argue that saying "Woe is me" is saying that I have (metaphorically) become woe (ie, misery) or vice-versa, which is legitimate, both in syntax and semantics. But it's not the sort of syntax one would use in a business letter.

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