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I was told that my friend, while acting as platonic comrade, was secretly

"smitten with me."

According to Merriam-Webster's dictionary, "smitten" means

"deeply affected with or struck by strong feelings of attraction, affection, or infatuation."

So, had I known this at the time, I would not have been surprised to have heard this description.

But that's what I know NOW. At the time I was more confused because I had only Google at my disposal which clearly defined "smitten" as

past participle of

SMITE.

synonyms: STRUCK down, laid low, SUFFERING, affected, afflicted, plagued, stricken

The King James Bible says in Exodus 7:17:

Thus saith the LORD, In this thou shalt know that I am the LORD: behold, I will

smite

with the rod that is in mine hand upon the waters which are in the river, and they shall be turned to blood.

So why does—and for how long has—"SMITTEN" meant "deeply affected with or stuck by strong feelings of attraction, affection, or INFATUATION? What does that have to do with affliction and anguish?

  • 2
    @KarlG I’m thinking that is an answer not a comment. And that I already said those things. :) – tchrist Jan 25 '18 at 3:02
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    "Already" is relative. I didn't see your answer until after I hit return. – KarlG Jan 25 '18 at 3:05
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    Consider that "love-struck" is a metaphor -- the "victim" has been "struck" and is in a daze just as might be boxer in a boxing match. "Smite" or "smitten" is sometimes (but not always) used in the same metaphorical sense. – Hot Licks Jan 25 '18 at 3:22
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    My heart is smitten, and withered like grass; so that I forget to eat my bread. Psalm 102:4.[KJV 1611]. Coverdale 1535 : My hert is smytte downe and wythered like grasse, so that I forget to eate my bred. – Nigel J Jan 25 '18 at 3:24
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    Was this a real misunderstanding that happened, or are you toying with us? – Stephan Jan 25 '18 at 5:50
26

I think the real question is how you get from a meaning of strike to infatuated. When there is semantic shift that causes a new sense of a word to splinter off, there is usually for some time some figurative meaning of the old sense that eventually starts to get popular and takes on a life of its own.

So if you look at the original sense, you'll see that it is also paraphrased as afflicted. Semantically speaking, smiting (a physical blow) has agent-patient roles, while smiting (afflicting) has stimulus-experiencer roles. Those are the seeds of the semantic shift.

Now affliction can be physical or it can also be emotional. Look at these uses of the word from the 16th century, and you see it's a smooth cline from a physical stimulus (leprosy), to a stimulus of danger (fear), to a romantic stimulus (temptation), to a general longing/soul searching (self-doubt).

1545: mary through pride and inobedyence murmured agaynst her brother moses, and annie: xii: by and by she was smitten with the lepre: this mary that rebelled agaynste moses that is againste her prelate,

1543: the bishop couth full mekill skyll, of a woman alwaye that so couth chese, a lady that was vncouth and for yt mery woordes, that came of his mouth Thei trowed he had, right great experience of womanes rule, and hir conuenience Kyng robert bruys, smitten in lepry dyed to whom his soonne dauid, then did succede and crouned was, for kyng and notified his wife also, was crouned quene in deede Kyng edwardes suster

1550: and my fleshe is smitten wyth feare

1558: dauid dyd behold curiously the beauty of his souldiours wyfe, and sodeinly he was smitten in the hart with the dart of adulterye

1559: another of his exercises was this: he vsed to make vnto himselfe an ephemeris, or a iournall, in which he vsed to write all such notable things, as either he did see or heare, ech day that passed: but whatsoeuer he did heare or see, he did so pen it, that a man might see in that booke, the signes of his smitten heart: for if he did heare or see any good in any man, by that sight he foud and noted the want thereof in himself, and added a short praier, crauing mercy &; grace to amend: if he did heare or see any plague, or misery, he noted it as a thing procured by his own sins, &; stil added, domine, miserere mei, lord, haue mercy vpo mee:

It's plain to see how the meaning of the term gradually morphed, and I think you can see obviously metaphorical uses of the term in the 16th century, well before OED is ready to concede a second sense.

But to actually get to the second sense, you need different argument realization as well. Look closely at the last two examples. Both have the smitten person's heart playing some role in the sentence. I'd guess that the phrase smitten in the heart or something like that eventually became conventional to the point where you could omit in the heart. Then you are clearly at a new sense, because the argument frame has changed.

  • This is a lovely and excellent explanation. – Tom Church Feb 23 '18 at 6:55
9

The first historical citation provided by the OED for this “love-struck” sense of smitten is this one:

1688 Pleasures Matrimony xii. 177 — At length a smitten youngster comes to the point—your price Sir, (quo he) to the Father.

This romantic sense of smitten is so common that the earlier (since around 1250) sense of being struck they label as “Now somewhat rare.” However, they do provide a 1999 citation for that earlier sense, the one you imagined.

  • 2
    The struck sense of smite isn't that rare, it's just mostly limited to Christian religious contexts - and perhaps fantasy, RPG, &c. – jamesqf Jan 25 '18 at 4:46
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    @jamesqf They're speaking not of the verb but of the adjective when they say its original sense is now somewhat rare. – tchrist Jan 25 '18 at 12:21
4

The biblical reference in the question is very typical of the use of 'smitten' seen in the KJV. But there is another use of the word in Psalm 102:4

My heart is smitten, and withered like grasse: so that I forget to eate my bread.[KJV 1611]

The Coverdale version also uses it in the same text :

My hert is smytte downe and wythered like grasse, so that I forget to eate my bred. [Coverdale 1535]

Clearly the meaning is of internal feelings, of whatever kind they may be, and of the strong effects within which make one feel as though one has been physically 'smitten' as in battle.

KJV and Coverdale

  • Oh God he really captures that feeling don't ee? Heart withered like grass. Oooh dear! Wonderful... – Jelila Jan 25 '18 at 10:20
2

It means, that they are so adoring of you, as to fall to the ground, helpless - as if someone had taken a stick, and whacked them over the head with it - seeing stars!

If you are smitten by an idea - you are struck by it, very taken with it, involved, absorbed in it.

If you are smitten with desire - again you are very taken with it, involved, and most likely, must act on it! Meaning again, that it's like the notion whacked you over the head - it really got your attention!

If you are 'struck down' or 'smitten' by a disease it means you are really sick, afflicted - cannot function.

So smitten really refers to an event that has such a strong effect on you, that you can no longer function or do your normal day-to-day activities. For - if you are struck down - you are effectively lying on the ground, somewhat stunned! You must then, instead, focus on, or pay close attention to - whatever smote you!

Even Demigods like Maui in the movie Moana, have trouble conjugating 'smite': https://archiveofourown.org/works/8824432

And you can see it, here: https://getyarn.io/yarn-clip/a0fe2598-08ef-486f-9849-9d3b6f83c7e3

Here's how to conjugate it - interesting etymology notes, with dates of origin waaay down at the bottom of this link: http://www.verbix.com/webverbix/English/smite.html

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