Monday, April 18, 2011

Noted in passing: become becomes obsolete

Language changes. The rate at which a given language changes is something linguists can measure and write papers about and draw conclusions about, and I’m not a linguist. So I’ll leave all that to the experts.

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?


Stan said...

I use it infrequently. I might say that something becomes someone, or doesn't become them, or more seldom I might describe something as becoming or unbecoming. Although I see it now and then in prose, I rarely hear people speak it. I remember being a bit surprised by the film title Death Becomes Her, because I imagined its meaning — and pun — wouldn't be immediately obvious to everyone.

virtuallori said...

I'm 44 and familiar with the usage, but now that you mention it, I haven't heard that usage in a long time. It's definitely not part of my regular vocabulary. I would say something along the lines of "it looks nice on you" or "it's flattering."

Susanna said...

I'm almost 60 and rarely hear or use it when speaking, except in riffs on "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman." IOW, there's often some tongue-in-cheekiness involved. Growing up, I heard it used often esp. by women of my mother's and grandmothers' generations. As applied to clothing ("That dress is so becoming on you" or "Red becomes you"), it seemed to carry a bit of an undercurrent: That dress/color disguises your big nose, pallid complexion, nonexistent waist, etc.

Sarah O'Keefe said...

I think of it as a military term "conduct unbecoming an officer".

But yes, I am familiar with the term. I might use it sarcastically; it does have a certain old-fashioned fragrance to it.

Wordnik agrees that "unbecoming" is fading away. (Searching "becoming" is problematic because of the other usages.)

Xmun said...

The title of O'Neill's play is Mourning Becomes Electra, not Morning. In my youth (I'm now 75) I found the title unintelligible, but this sense of "become", once learned, I came to like and still occasionally use.

Dick Margulis said...

Mourning, not morning. Damn. Thanks for the catch.

The Book Doctor said...

I haven't used it recently, but I'm certainly familiar with it and heard it often in my youth (I'm 60-something). I'll try to resurrect it in my own speech--it's a very useful word that deserves to be restored to currency. Does anyone remember the song "Moonlight Becomes You"?

erin said...

I know this usage of the word only because my mother and grandmother used it, generally as "that's unbecoming" if a piece of clothing wasn't flattering or if I wasn't behaving in a very ladylike manner. Haven't heard it elsewhere.

KellyK said...

At 29, I'm familiar with this usage, but I don't hear it much. I hear "flattering" much more frequently than "becoming" to convey something a little more serious or formal than "looks cute on you."