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I'm having a little trouble parsing an in this context:

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

I thought it might be some kind of typo, but it is repeated, diminishing (though not eliminating) the chance of that.

Then I thought it might be a floated form of the prefix en-

word-forming element meaning "in; into," from French and Old French en-, from Latin in- "in, into" (from PIE root *en "in").
Etymonline

That feels a bit closer, but lacks that satisfying click of certainty. Anybody have a clue about this?


From the reaction of a few folks, it seems they want to point me in the direction of “hungred” as a noun (a hungry person, one who is hungered) with a silent /h/. The problem with that is that hungry was already present in Middle English, and even in Old English (hungrig, which would have been pronounced much the same). The next line uses thirsty readily enough, without turning that into a noun.

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  • "Hungred" is the word, not hundred.
    – Robusto
    Oct 9, 2021 at 21:30
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    You say it can't be "an hungred" meaning a hungry person because it's followed by an adjective, "thirsty", but after that comes another noun phrase "a stranger" and another adjective "naked", so they're evidently not bothered about mixing up noun phrases and adjectives.
    – Stuart F
    Oct 9, 2021 at 23:11
  • It's a form of emphasis, similar to "I'm a-going home", but I don't have enough technical expertise to write a proper answer.
    – Mick
    Oct 10, 2021 at 1:51
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    This is seventeenth-century English. Is it "an" rather than "a" because the letter "h"follows as in "There's an hotel in my road"? Were it written as "a-hungered" it may not sound so strange to us. Sounds a bit like "We saw you a-sleep". I seem to recall "a-thirst" from the bible. Might be worth doing a search on it in Shakespeare. The AV bible belongs to the same period as the bard.
    – WS2
    Oct 10, 2021 at 2:13
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    According to this site it is found in Gilbert and Sullivan (Yeomen of the Guard) as well as in Shakespeare. But you need to register for more information.
    – WS2
    Oct 10, 2021 at 2:20

4 Answers 4

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OED

anhungered, adj.

Etymology: apparently for earlier a-hungred

archaic

1. Overcome with hunger, hungry.

c1300 K. Alis. 1229 The folk and the poraile weoren an-hungred.

1377 Langland Piers Plowman B. x. 59 (Oriel) Bothe an-hungred and a-þrist.

1526 Bible (Tyndale) Matt. xii. 1 His disciples wer anhongred.

The prefix an- is a reduced, unstressed, form of the prefix on- - found before a following vowel or "h". This use of "on" remains in the phrase "on high".

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  • Wonderful answer!
    – Robusto
    Oct 10, 2021 at 13:29
  • The a- prefix is reasonably well known as in 'a-hunting we will go' etc and has been covered here before. I wonder if the later switch to an- here was an early hypercorrection. Oct 10, 2021 at 16:39
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  1. Searching through the entire KJV, I see several other uses of "an hungred." Matthew 12:1 would seem to disprove the "it really means an hungred [person]" theory because there the subject is plural: "his disciples were an hungred." There's also Mark 2:25 and the parallel passage in Luke 6:3, as well as Mark 4:2.
  2. Unfortunately, I can't come up with a way to search for "an plus a participle," but searching for " an " shows, of course, many places where the article is used before any word starting with "h": "an holy day," "an hin of oil." Yes, this was absolutely a standard rule (though perhaps irrelevant to this question).
  3. There are only 9 occurrences of "an hungred," all of them in the gospels. The word "hungred" does not occur in the KJV without the "an."

Conspiracy theory: The King James Bible was a team effort by multiple translators. Maybe whoever worked on the gospels was fond of the construction "an hungred"?

More plausible theory: We need a language historian to help us out, but I think the theory that it is some sort of "enhungered" type of construction is most plausible. I find it implausible that "an" is actually acting as an article in this scenario.

Unrelated footnote: Just in case people find this page while on an unrelated quest: There's an unrelated archaic use of "an" in Elizabethan/Jacobean English, in usages that would be rendered as "if" in modern English, as a contraction of "and if" ("An I should live a thousand years, I never should forget it").

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I'm not sure of the technical term but a or an are used before words other than nouns sometimes.

Take the nursery rhyme Dashing away with her smoothing iron for example, which contains a-washing a-hanging and a-airing

The function of the a or an seems to be to suggest duration. If I spend a few minutes looking for temporarily mislaid glasses, I may be said to be "hunting" for them but if I go "a hunting" I may be out for most of the day trying to catch my supper.

If I spend a few seconds washing my hands I am "washing" but if I am "a washing" I may be taking a couple of hours to do the weekly clothes wash.

If I choose to skip lunch on a busy day that might make me temporarily hungry but if I am "an hungered" I am probably underfed or starving due to an ongoing serious unavailability of food.

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It's saying that Jesus was hungry.

Let's look at a modern translation of this text (the New International Version).

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

(Matthew 35:37-43; bolding mine to emphasize the words emphasized in the archaic translation in he OP.)

From this, we can see that the archaic "an hungered" means "hungry".

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