October 13, 2013

Odd English

Yesterday I found myself thinking about the expression "after the fact". As in, "I only learned about it after the fact." For some reason, it struck me as odd. Why include fact?

Noodling around in my head, I wondered what the opposite expression was and realized it's "beforehand". As in, "I was trained beforehand." Hmm. Fact and hand. You'd think the two terms would match, like foreword and afterword, but they don't.

No one seems to be sure where beforehand came from. It's an old English expression, to be sure, but why the hand is included isn't clear. Some etymological sites suggest it might mean taking action before "another hand" has an opportunity to do so. Could be, but sounds a bit shaky to me.

I found an interesting note on this topic on answer.com. A commenter named Mai said:
And to extend this a bit, afterhand...
First hand, second hand, afterhand (1439) are from the notion of something being passed down from hand to hand.
That sounds likely. Hand to hand. (Aside: I can't decide if I've ever heard the term afterhand. It seems distantly familiar, as if I encountered it long ago in a book. Not sure.) This also makes me think of "firsthand experience", as in something that you yourself experience; yours is the "first hand" to "touch" the experience.

As for after the fact, I can't find the souce for this expression. Offhand (Awk! There it goes again!) I'd say it's the result of a police-official (or schoolmarm) mindset. "The suspect learned after the fact that he'd bulldozed the wrong house." It reeks of official-ese. Also, it seems to me there's a sense of wrongdoing attached to the phrase. The fact is usually something at least slightly negative. "I didn't know she was just fat when I asked how her pregnancy was going. I only learned this after the fact." It has a bit of ameliorization to it. It's an attempt to evade full responsibility. "I didn't know!"

Or maybe that's just me. Any thoughts, wordlings?

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