I had what the Spanish call a “lapsus” today (no, not a lapsus freudiano) and completely forgot how to spell a certain word.
I was writing an e-mail to my grandmother, meaning to tell her that I would gladly give up hypothetical thing A for hypothetical thing B. Though I chose the right word, I could not remember how to spell it:
I’m happy to forgo the trip…?
I’m happy to forego the trip…?
Even though it’s my job to correct other people’s English mistakes, I still get uncertain when I write. I’ve said before that the one word I’m always unsure of is misspelling itself—are there two esses or three? In the case above, I didn’t know the etymology of the word. Because I did not know what that first fore was, um, for, I could not be sure of how to spell it. Spellcheck doesn’t help with this one: both “forgo” and “forego” are real English words. But only one means to go without, as I meant to say in my letter. The trouble is that in English you can understand the meaning of a word without explicit knowledge of its component parts, just as in German.
Strangely enough, I’m completely sure how to spell a similar word, one in which the prefix is much more obvious: the foregoing, or what went before. Forethought, forehead, forecast…you can see that Old English fore- hard at work to change the meaning of these words to something primary, something first.
But what about forever, forlorn, forsaken? What’s that for- doing in these words? More importantly, what exactly does it mean? I decided to go with dictionary.com today, a service which borrows heavily from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary:
a prefix meaning “away,” “off,” “to the uttermost,” “extremely,” “wrongly,” or imparting a negative or privative force, occurring in verbs and nouns formed from verbs of Old or Middle English origin, many of which are now obsolete or archaic: forbid; forbear; forswear; forbearance.
[Origin: ME, OE; cf. G ver-, Gk peri-, L per-]
Not exactly a mnemonic, is it? This is tricky stuff: if you Ask Oxford about forego, the next web page you see will offer two links: one for forego and one for forgo. Maybe I’m not the only one who’s had trouble making the distinction.
But no more! From now, as long as I remember that both words exist as legitimate spellings in the English language, I’ve got a foolproof way to tell which one means to go without:
process of elimination.
Occam’s razor. Were you expecting the OED?
Fore goes with before. Which means that forego implies something preceding: something that goes before.
I think we can forgo any further explanation. Don’t you?