Noted in passing: become becomes obsolete
But we all recognize that certain phrases and words and usages rise or fall in popularity within our lifetimes. So linguistic change is not always glacial.
For some reason, the word become popped into my head Saturday night. Not the intransitive verb become, as in “a caterpillar becomes a butterfly,” but the transitive verb become, as in “that outfit becomes you” or the gerund (I think I have that right) “that outfit is very becoming.”
This was a common locution in my childhood. My mother would say it to my sister, as she would say to me “that behavior is unbecoming a young gentleman.”
Sunday morning, my wife and I had brunch with her daughter and son-in-law. My wife remarked to my stepdaughter, “Is that jacket new? It looks cute on you.” Driving home, I asked her if her mother, like mine, would instead have said “that jacket is very becoming.” We agreed that neither of us had heard anyone use the word in recent memory—certainly no one of our generation or those after.
So I did a cursory corpus search, using Google’s new Ngram viewer. It seems the use of the word unbecoming, at least in printed works, peaked around 1710 at 20 times its current frequency, and related phrases that I tried have similarly declined. The decline has been about fifty percent since the 1950s. There has been a slight uptick in the last few years of “unbecoming a young lady,” apparently in Christian behavior manuals. Otherwise, this sense of the word become seems to be quite moribund, although dictionaries treat it as current and unremarkable.
So let me ask you: if you are under forty, is this a word you hear or use in speech? Other than in nineteenth-century and earlier literature or in the title Morning Becomes Electra, are you familiar with it in writing? Did you even know the word before reading this post?