The expression “woe is me” (meaning) looks strange. On the surface, it seems to mean “an unhappy event is me”. Sure, it's an old idiom, undoubtedly reflecting vocabulary or grammar that is no longer productive in modern English. But what old language feature does it reflect? Is woe used as an adjective which is the complement of the verb and me an inverted subject (in which case, why isn't it “woe am I”)? Or does it mean “misery is me”, as in, “misery fills my soul so that I am misery personified”? I understand “woe betide me” (ok, not the most common object) and “woe [is] unto me”, but “woe is me” puzzles me.

Grammarphobia states that woe is the subject, but it isn't clear how the rest of the sentence is constructed. As a shortening or evolution of “woe is unto me”? How did that happen?

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    Potentially related (I haven't read all the answers): Why do we use the object instead of the subject pronoun in constructions like “stupid me”? – Rand al'Thor Oct 29 '17 at 19:03
  • Possible duplicate of Woe is me - what does it mean? – Hot Licks Oct 29 '17 at 19:12
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    @HotLicks The other question was asking for the meaning; this one for the underlying old language feature it reflects. How are those the same? – tchrist Oct 29 '17 at 19:15
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    @HotLicks Uh? As I have stated in my question, I am aware of that thread, it asked a related but different question and the answers, including yours, do not extend to answering my question. In what possible way can it be a duplicate? – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Oct 29 '17 at 19:50
  • Miscellaneous side note: there's a grammar book titled Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, which dedicates its first chapter to pronoun agreement. The relevant line from that book is "Hundreds of years after the first Ophelia cried "Woe is me," some pedants would argue that Shakespeare should have written 'Woe is I' or 'Woe is unto me.' (Never mind that the rules of English grammar weren't even formalized in Shakespeare's day.)" – JLRishe Oct 30 '17 at 9:24

It is indeed old, and can be found in Beowulf:

Wa bið þæm þe sceal þurh sliðne nið sawle bescufan in fyres fæþm, frofre ne wenan, wihte gewendan; wel bið þæm þe mot æfter deaðdæge drihten secean ond to fæder fæþmum freoðo wilnian.

Woe be to him who through severe affliction thrust his soul into the fire’s embrace, hope not for relief, or to change at all; Well be to him who after his death may seek the Lord and long for peace in the Father’s arms.

“Woe to the Rich and the Sordid Fellows”: The Syntax, Semantics and Information Structure of ‘Woe’ in Indo-European

Note the emphasis (which is from the cited paper). Woe here is parallel to well; because well is an adverb, so is woe.

(Note: In this particular sense, "Wa bið þæm" is closest in meaning to "Cursed is he".)

The OED explains that this usage came from the interjection woe (which was a "common Indo-European interjection" also used in OE):

Arising as an adverbial use of the interjection with the dative, although in later use probably often interpreted as a noun

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    I don't know why you say that it’s “closest in meaning” to “Cursed is he”, given that “Cursed is he” is a reversed copula equivalent to “He is cursed”. (The first-person version would be “Cursed am I”.) Whereas “Wa bið þæm” clearly uses þæm, which was just as much of an object form as them or me still is today. Wouldn’t “A curse unto him” be closer? – tchrist Oct 29 '17 at 20:15
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    @tchrist Because that's what it's translated as in some translations, like this one. It's also what OED says. It's probably translated this way because prescriptivist grammar says so. – Laurel Oct 29 '17 at 20:19
  • You are saying that 'well' is an adverb in say 'he is well'? – Edwin Ashworth Oct 29 '17 at 22:49
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    @EdwinAshworth No, that’s not what’s being asserted here. You should read the referenced paper. Start towards the bottom of p. 4 et seqq for the discussion of this having been originally an adverb. In Old English, wel was strictly an adverb of the positive degree, bet of the comparative, and best of the superlative. The adjectival senses you’re thinking of in Modern English are much newer. If you still have some Latin, they also present the evidence that vae — as in the familiar “Vae victis!” (woe to the vanquished) — cannot have been a noun either. Strange, I know; you should read it. – tchrist Oct 30 '17 at 0:50
  • @tchrist Laurel should define terms if using them in a non-standard (by today's standards) way. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 30 '17 at 9:34

To some extent, English has (in many cases) "before-the-verb and after-the-verb constructs. "Who's that at the door?" is usually answered by "It's me," rather than "It is I." "Me" (much more than "he" or "she") behaves a bit like the French "moi."

Also "he," "she," and "me," rhyme for whatever that's worth.

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