By the third time I noticed unbeknown in somebody’s English, I knew it was time to take action.
First stop: that U.S. English stalwart, Merriam-Webster. I smugly tapped in “unbeknown”, expecting to see M-W’s usual nonjudgmental response:
The word you’ve entered isn’t in the dictionary.
A Mistaken Mistake?
Color me surprised — or don’t, since that might be mixing metaphors: Merriam-Webster lists “unbeknown” as a variant of “unbeknownst.”
That’s right: unbeknownst to me, “unbeknown” has been an acceptable usage all along.
But let’s not just take M-W’s word for it. Not only is it important to use multiple sources, I also work into American and British English – which means that now I had to make sure that “unbeknownst,” what I’d been using all along, was actually okay to employ on either side of the Atlantic.
Covering the Bases
Luckily for me, Lynne Murphy of separated by a common language got there first. In a strange coincidence, her post was made on September 22, 2007 – almost exactly a year ago today. She writes:
John Algeo discusses this phrase in his book British or American English? Searching the Cambridge International Corpus, he found 3.0 instances of unbeknown but only 0.9 instances of unbeknownst per ten million words in BrE texts. On the other hand, he found 4.1 per ten million of unbeknownst and only 1.0/10,000,000 of unbeknown in AmE texts.
In layman’s terms, that means my hunch was right: “unbeknownst” is probably a red flag in British English! I checked the British National Corpus (remember them?) just to be sure, and out of 100 million words, there are 44 instances of “unbeknown” versus just 11 for “unbeknownst.” That’s just about exactly the inverse of what Algeo found in his American English source texts.
Of course, that still makes either usage fairly uncommon – so it’s pretty incredible that a few native U.S. English speakers have noticed the difference at all!
So the next time you use “unbeknownst” (I’m sure you hit it at least once a year), remember to decode it for your British friends, lest they think you’ve made a mistake!