Awakening to all kinds of possibilities

Why English has so many forms for the verbs referring to coming out of sleep

Steven Senne/AP
Bunk beds rest near a sign in a nap station next to the Boston Red Sox clubhouse at Fenway Park in Boston on May 31, 2017.

As any householder knows, certain domestic projects can stay on “the list” forever, such as digging into that mystery box that’s been down in the basement so long you’ve forgotten what it could hold. 

And then suddenly the impulse comes: Today is the day to deal with it.

I keep a list of verbal “mystery boxes,” language issues to research when I can. And I’ve just had that “today” urge for one of them, impelled by a helpful usage note from Merriam-Webster online.

The question is, “Why so many verb forms for waking? I awake, I awoke, I have awoken; but what about awaken? And wake up, and just plain wake

“If these questions keep you awake at night, you’re not alone,” M-W writes. Usage maven Bryan Garner calls the two verbs awake and awaken “perhaps the most vexing in the language.” 

Here’s the nub of it: Old English had two verbs meaning “to rise from sleep,” one transitive and the other intransitive. And one was “regular” and the other “irregular.” Close in spelling and meaning, they borrowed forms back and forth, like children who wear each other’s clothes so often they forget who actually owns what.

Thus we may find quite some variety in our mental catalogs of usage examples, from John Lennon (“And when I awoke, I was alone, this bird has flown”) to John Milton: “I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.” (Those are two very different experiences of being abandoned by a woman, but I digress.)

And somewhere along the line, the participle awaken (“He had awaken early”) became its own (regular) verb, often used figuratively. Thus Thomas Carlyle wrote, “[T]he genius of the country has awakened....” 

Recent news coverage of a mysterious midnight sausage drop in Florida provides, along with some chuckles, current evidence of the various “wake” verbs coexisting in the wild.

The Palm Beach Post reported: “In something out of a scene from ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ [yes, an actual movie and book, or really a franchise], a South Florida family awoke to frozen Italian sausage on their roof.” Note “awoke to” – a straight-ahead use of the ancient verb for literally coming out of sleep, but with the “to” following, it becomes an idiom often used metaphorically (“awoke to the danger”).

The second sentence includes a variation (“woke up”): “The Adair family, of Deerfield Beach, woke up Saturday morning to the loud thud of several packages of frozen Italian sausage banging against the roof....”

The Post goes on to quote Travis Adair, “It was like thunder, and it awakened me out of a sleep.” He opted for the alternative verb, albeit in a literal (non-Carlyle) sense. 

My takeaway: I can’t go wrong with awake, awoke, awoken for literal waking up, intransitively (“I awoke early”) or transitively (“I awoke the children early”). But I’ll reserve awaken for metaphorical usages – unless, of a course, someone drops a load of frozen sausage on my roof.

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