5

The noun sooth, pronounced /suːθ/, is now archaic and means ‘fact’,‘reality’ and ‘truth’. Its legacy persists in the words soothe /suːð/, and soothsayer meaning someone who sees the truth, a synonym of fortune teller and the French loanword clairvoyant.

In Shakespeare's plays, sooth is often used with the verb say and in the expression in sooth whereas truth is often used with the verb tell

From Shakespeare's Macbeth

Sergeant:
If I say sooth, I must report they were
As cannons overcharged with double cracks, so they
Doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe:

(Act I, Scene 2)

Banquo:
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.

(Act I, Scene 3)

Macbeth:
[Aside] Two truths are told,
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme.—I thank you, gentlemen.

(Act I, Scene 3)

Macbeth:
If thou speak'st false,
Upon the next tree shalt thou hang alive,
Till famine cling thee: if thy speech be sooth,
I care not if thou dost for me as much.
I pull in resolution, and begin
To doubt the equivocation of the fiend
That lies like truth: 'Fear not, till Birnam wood
Do come to Dunsinane:'…

(Act V, Scene 5)

Merchant of Venice

Antonio:
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;

(Act I, Scene 1)

Etymonline tells me that truth meaning "something that is true" was first recorded in the mid-14 century. In the 1560s, truth came to mean "accuracy, correctness". Meanwhile, the noun sooth is dated 900 and was derived from soð.

  • I would like to know what difference in meaning, if any, was there between sooth and truth?
  • Why did “sooth” become obsolete, and when was it eventually overtaken by “truth”?
4
  • I've never thought about it before but looking at the examples you give it looks to me as though Will used sooth for something that was communicated (in other words say sooth meant to tell the truth) whereas a truth meant something that was true independently of the communication (for example it is true that the sun rises in the east). Would you agree?
    – BoldBen
    Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 15:07
  • @BoldBen it could be... the Bard frequently uses "sooth" with the verb "say" e.g. And tell thy king I do not seek him now; / But could be willing to march on to Calais / Without impeachment: for, to say the sooth, / (History of Henry V, Act III, Scene 6)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 15:33
  • Before Shakespeare it was used also by Chaucer in “The Canterbury Tales” :, second half of 15th century - 595/610, “As wyves mooten, for it is usage-. And with my coverchief covered my visage;. But for that I was ... He was, I trowe, a twenty wynter oold,. And I was fourty, if I shal seye sooth,. But yet I hadde alwey a coltes ...librarius.com/canttran/wifetale/wifetale593-632.htm
    – user 66974
    Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 5:56
  • 1
    I've no idea why sooth died out of use, and I suggest Shakespeare used say sooth and tell truth because he knew better than most both that alliteration is the strongest trick in the English writer's tool-kit and that variety is the spice of speech. Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 23:02

3 Answers 3

3

World Wide Words appears to suggest that ther is no real difference in meaning between sooth and truth:

Sooth does indeed mean “truth”, an Old English word. It has not been in daily use for about four centuries, except in the phrases by my sooth or my sooth, interjections now obsolete which emphasised that the speaker was telling the truth.

Regarding your second question, it appears the term was commonly used till mid 1600s and has been considered archaic since then.

Sooth:

Archaic in English, it is the root of modern words for "true" in Swedish (sann) and Danish (sand). In common use until mid-17c., then obsolete until revived as an archaism early 19c. by Scott, etc. Used for Latin pro- in translating compounds into Old English, e.g. soðtacen "prodigy," soðfylgan "prosequi."

(Etymonline)

Sooth was reintroduced in the nineteenth century as a literary archaism by writers such as Sir Walter Scott.

  • In sooth, there was that in her face and in her voice when she spoke which almost made Anne weep, through its strange sweetness and radiance. (A Lady of Quality, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1896. This work is exceptionally full of sooth — the author uses the word 20 times.)
0
3
+150

Etymonline says sooth -- born with the English language itself -- was in use till mid 17th century, but it doesn't directly explain its demise. (I liked the bit about it being connected to sin as in “being the one”, which makes sin a relative of the modern day German verb 'to be', sein).

It seems there must have been a long phase where 'truth' and 'sooth' performed different functions. 'Truth', also around since Old English days, originally had the sense of being true as in demonstrating faithfulness and loyalty.

From dictionary etymology

Old English triewð (West Saxon), treowð (Mercian) "faith, faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty; veracity, quality of being true; pledge, covenant," from Germanic abstract noun *treuwitho, from Proto-Germanic treuwaz "having or characterized by good faith," from PIE *drew-o-, a suffixed form of the root *deru- "be firm, solid, steadfast." With Germanic abstract noun suffix *-itho (see -th (2)).

Until the mid 14th century 'sooth' alone would have covered the other uses 'truth' has today of expressing factuality.

Old English soð "truth, justice, righteousness, rectitude; reality, certainty," noun use of soð (adj.) "true, genuine, real; just, righteous," originally *sonð-, from Proto-Germanic *santhaz (source also of Old Norse sannr, Old Saxon soth, Old High German sand "true," Gothic sunja "truth").

But it would seem then that in the mid 14th century the meaning of truth expanded. (still etymology online)

Sense of "something that is true" is first recorded mid-14c. Meaning "accuracy, correctness" is from 1560s.

According to Wikipedia, modern day English 'truth' is now alone amongst Germanic languages.

All Germanic languages besides English have introduced a terminological distinction between truth "fidelity" and truth "factuality". To express "factuality", North Germanic opted for nouns derived from sanna* "to assert, affirm", while continental West Germanic (German and Dutch) opted for continuations of wâra "faith, trust, pact" (cognate to Slavic věra "(religious) faith", but influenced by Latin verus). Romance languages use terms following the Latin veritas, while the Greek aletheia, Russian pravda and South Slavic istina have separate etymological origins.

[*cognate with soð according to etymonline]

But it seems to me that it is not so much the case that English didn't “introduce a terminologicad distinction”, but rathermore that it discarded the one it had.

I'm afraid I didn't find a direct explanation as to why sooth fell out of use, but if wikipedia and the online etymology dictionary speak sooth then it seems that 'truth' elbowed its way into 'sooth' territory in the mid 14th century. It's pure conjecture, but perhaps this contributed to the demise of 'sooth' in mid 17th century; it seems natural enough to assume that since 'truth' covered sooth and more, then if one were to fall by the wayside it would be 'sooth'. Strewth!

3
  • 1
    Ahh, God's truth = strewth :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 17:03
  • 1
    It’s worth noting that Etymonline’s transcription of Old English frequently leaves out length marks: the OE form of sooth was actually sōð (or sōþ, depending on how you prefer to write the dental phoneme), not soð. It’s also worth noting that the North Germanic (=Scandinavian) words “derived from sanna ‘to assert, affirm’” are of course the ones mentioned as cognates to sooth in the Etymonline quote further up. Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 19:19
  • @JanusBahsJacquet, yes, I agree; in the meantime I've included that relationship to 'sanna'.
    – S Conroy
    Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 21:43
-1

I'm about 4 years late to the party, but I was just thinking about this the other day. I was wondering if truth might not be a portmanteau between "troth" and "sooth". "Troth" the way I understand it meant something like fidelity, but also one's good word, and one's personal, subjective truth. To tell "troth" meant to speak one's understanding of a situation accurately, while a "sooth"sayer was unique in being able to discourse in universal truths. If I'm right in my guess, "Truth" emerged to simplify the function of the two words, and Shakespeare, who regularly used all three, marks a convergence point.

There is no legitimate research involved in the forming of this conjecture beyond reading a bunch of Shakespeare recently.

1
  • 1
    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Commented May 10, 2023 at 19:45

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.