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The meaning and origin of the expression: Woe betide you

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Woe betide you

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Woe betide you'?

A prediction, usually expressed as a warning following someone's bad behaviour, that you may suffer future misfortune.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Woe betide you'?

Woe betide you'Woe betide you' has a rather archaic feel. 'Betide' is hardly ever used now outside this expression and 'woe' is generally reserved for hamming it up in 'Ye Olde' B features. It is also used in the expression 'woe is me', which is itself venerable and has a strong claim to be the earliest expression that has migrated from another language into English. UK readers of a certain age will no doubt remember the much missed Frankie Howerd's 'woe, woe and thrice woe' catchphrase. A Google search for "woe betide you" does get 600,000+ hits though, so someone must still be using it.

'Woe betide me' was a common early precursor and appears in William Langland's Middle English narrative poem The vision of William concerning Piers Plowman, 1370-90:

Er ich wedde suche a wif· wo me by-tyde [If I marry such a wife, woe betide me]

We now only use the word 'tide' to denote the regular rising and falling of the sea. We can get a better understanding of what 'tide' and 'betide' mean by substituting 'tide' with 'time', which is just what the medieval clerics did - the two words were near enough synonymous. Knowing that 'tide' means 'period of time' or 'season', we can see that a lunar tide can be translated as 'a period of approximately twelve and a half hours' and 'woe betide you' as 'you are in for a bad time'.

The tide/time transliteration also survives in 'good tidings', that is, 'a good time', 'tide over', that is, 'make last for a time' and in the names of festivals like Whitsuntide. We can also shorten the reduplicated phrase 'time and tide' if we choose, as one word just repeats the other.

See also: reduplicated phrases.

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