Construction of “woe is me”

The expression “woe is me” (meaning) looks strange. On the surface, it seems to mean “an unhappy event is me”. Sure, it’s an old idiom, undoubtedly reflecting vocabulary or grammar that is no longer productive in modern English. But what old language feature does it reflect? Is woe used as an adjective which is the complement of the verb and me an inverted subject (in which case, why isn’t it “woe am I”)? Or does it mean “misery is me”, as in, “misery fills my soul so that I am misery personified”? I understand “woe betide me” (ok, not the most common object) and “woe [is] unto me”, but “woe is me” puzzles me.

Grammarphobia states that woe is the subject, but it isn’t clear how the rest of the sentence is constructed. As a shortening or evolution of “woe is unto me”? How did that happen?


It is indeed old, and can be found in Beowulf:

Wa bið þæm þe sceal þurh sliðne nið sawle bescufan in fyres fæþm, frofre ne wenan, wihte gewendan; wel bið þæm þe mot æfter deaðdæge drihten secean ond to fæder fæþmum freoðo wilnian.

Woe be to him who through severe affliction thrust his soul into the fire’s embrace, hope not for relief, or to change at all; Well be to him who after his death may seek the Lord and long for peace in the Father’s arms.

“Woe to the Rich and the Sordid Fellows”: The Syntax,
Semantics and Information Structure of ‘Woe’ in

Note the emphasis (which is from the cited paper). Woe here is parallel to well; because well is an adverb, so is woe.

(Note: In this particular sense, "Wa bið þæm" is closest in meaning to "Cursed is he".)

The OED explains that this usage came from the interjection woe (which was a "common Indo-European interjection" also used in OE):

Arising as an adverbial use of the interjection with the dative, although in later use probably often interpreted as a noun

Source : Link , Question Author : Gilles ‘SO- stop being evil’ , Answer Author : Laurel

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