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I've just read Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede, and the author has her characters speak in a vaguely Shakespearean manner, presumably to add atmosphere. In particular, her characters use the word "an" to mean "if". For example, one of her characters says:

“An our ends be Godly, what need we fear?”

to mean (presumably) If our ends be Godly. This is a use of "an" that I've seen in the more dubious end of the fantasy literature many times over the decades, but I have never been clear whether the word was used this way in real English.

So my question is whether the use of "an" to mean "if" is an invention of fantasy writers or whether it was used this way in real life, and if so at what period in history and by whom?

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    Could it be short for “and”?
    – Gio
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 19:54
  • @Gio No, it is used many, many times in the book and clearly means "if". Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 19:55
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    Well, if it means if then other stuff must also be weird or the writer is just a fool. Scifi writers generally change more than one thing.
    – Lambie
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 21:01
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    @Lambie: as the OP says, this is typically used when characters are speaking in vaguely Shakespearean English, which shouldn't be surprising, since it is Shakespearean English. Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 22:16
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    The full OED has 4 instances of an it please (one of which has an apostrophe after an' to indicate the missing d), compared to 7 instances of and it please [your majesty, etc.]. They explicitly point out that in such contexts, an is derived from and equivalent to and. But whether contracted or not, they say it's obsolete / archaic / dialectal. Commented Dec 31, 2022 at 19:32

2 Answers 2

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An with the meaning of “If” is rather like Schrödinger’s cat – it both exists and does not exist at the same time.

OED

Etymology: Variant of and conj.1 with loss of final d

An apparently isolated earlier (Old English) example of an for and is probably no more than a scribal error of haplography.

An=if does not exist in Old English, in which if=gif and this was later rendered ʒif (and various other spellings) in Middle English, What Middle English did have was “and” that was used to introduce a conditional.

OED

Old English had occasional on (shortened < ond , variant of and conj.1); compare: eOE Bede Glosses (Tiber. C.ii) in Archiv f. das Studium der Neueren Sprachen (1917) 136 292 Recente memoria calamitates [read calamitatis] et cladis : neowre gemynde earfeðnisse on waele.

[...] the written form an is very rare [as the common conjunction] in printed sources except in representing regional or nonstandard use (where it is usually spelt an').

In sense of [and if – see OED 2. below] the form appears occasionally in the dramatists in the early modern period, especially before it , as an' 't please you , an' 't were , etc.

But this is no more than contractions, not the invention or introduction of a new word or the resurrection of an old one:

Modern writers and editors have frequently elaborated on this practice, making a conventional distinction between the two forms. For instance, except in an' 't, an is found only once in the First Folio, and being the usual spelling in the conditional use, but later editors of Shakespeare's works have frequently changed the spelling of the word, when it occurs in this sense, to an.

OED:

2. Now usually in form an. = and conj.1 II. (conditional). Formerly also in † an if, † if an (obsolete). Now archaic, literary, and regional (Scottish and English regional (chiefly northern)).

c1400 (▸c1378) W. Langland Piers Plowman (Laud 581) (1869) B. ii. l. 132 And myȝte kisse þe kynge for cosyn, an she wolde. [My translation/paraphrase "And if she wanted to, she would kiss the king"]

a1698 F. Sheppard Cal. Reform'd in Duke of Buckingham et al. Misc. Wks. (1704) 221 This over-grown Beast here, an't please your Highness,..calls my Valour in Question.

1928 A. E. Pease Dict. Dial. N. Riding Yorks. 3/1 An ye see ooer John ye mun tell him. [My translation "And if you see our John, you must tell him.]

But the prize for popularising the myth “an = if" must go to Charles Kingsley and the 1850 quote:

B. n. = and n.1 1. Chiefly in plural in ifs and ans.

?1697 in William & Mary Q. (1939) 19 350 If he promises any favour..it is with so many ifs and ans that he seldom fails of finding a backdoor, to evade all his promises.

1850 C. Kingsley Alton Locke I. x. 149 ‘If a poor man's prayer can bring God's curse down.’.. ‘If ifs and ans were pots and pans.’

The latter is a dialect recitation of “if ifs and ands were pots and pans, there'd be no work for tinkers' hands.” Which According to Oxford Reference arose in the mid -19th century.

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    Examples from alliterative verse famously written a century ago (1920–1925) now by JRR Tolkien in his Lay of the Children of Húrin: Yet a way canst win, an thou wishest, still / to lessen thy lot of lingering woe. (Line 65) and ‘Nay, an thou knowest not thy need of comb, / nor its use,’ quoth he, ‘too young thou leftest / thy mother’s ministry, and ’twere meet to go / that she teach thee tame thy tangled locks... (Line 485). The language of his poorer imitators you would be right to doubt, but these I take to be authentic in their use (he had worked on the OED 1919–1920).
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 0:35
  • Excellent thanks, this is exactly what I'd hoped for. So using "an" for "if" is indeed the invention of a fantasy writer, albeit a 16th century fantasy writer? Then as Peter Shor describes the modern writers have taken the idea from Shakespeare. Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 6:21
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    @KateBunting It is such, although this derives from a shortening up of and.
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 15:55
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    I'm having a hard time understanding the OED excerpts. Are you saying that "and" used to mean "if" and then it got shortened to "an"?
    – T Hummus
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 16:55
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    @THummus No, an = an' = and = and if. An was thus a shortened form of and if and was not (or very rarely) used as a contraction of "and" alone.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Dec 31, 2022 at 13:47
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No, they didn't invent it; Shakespeare used it, which is undoubtedly where the fantasy writers got it:

Nay, an you be so tardy, come no more in my sight. I had as lief be woo'd of a snail. — As You Like It

The OED lists this conjunction (meaning if) both under an and and. They claim it is still used in regional English.

From the citations in the OED, this goes back to almost the very beginning of written Middle English, in the 12th century (in both the forms an and and) but I can't find the etymology; maybe nobody knows it.

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    Even poetic German has that, "Und bist Du auch ..., so ....", with the und which normally means and used in a sense of even if. So I guess it goes back even further. You could even go back to Latin timeo Danaos et dona ferentes where the et, again and, is used in the same sense. Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 11:27
  • @GuntramBlohm note that the Latin "et" can have connotation of "even" or "also" but it does not imply conditionality unlike the English use above
    – eques
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 21:52
  • @GuntramBlohm I can only speak for Dutch as a related language, but I would say the conditionality doesn't come from the the "und" but from the inversion "bist du". In Dutch, we would make this more explicit by using a past tense ("En was jij ..."), which would be the equivalent of "Und warst du ..., so ..." I'm guessing -- but I speak no German and might be totally off.
    – Mew
    Commented Jan 1, 2023 at 12:53

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