Sun, Nov 07, 2004 - Page 9 News List

`Albeit': Is this qualifier nifty or wifty?

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

"Disarmament Process Starts in Sadr City, Albeit Slowly" was a front-page headline in The Washington Post last month.

About the same time, at a bankers' convention, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan marveled at "the management skills of bankers and the ability of regulators and legislators to adapt, albeit slowly, to change."

And in Laconia, New Hampshire, The Citizen commented on the 2004 election race: "It's been an exciting, albeit sometimes frustrating, election year."

This word that has become all the rage was classed prematurely as an archaism by Henry and Francis Fowler in their 1906 "The King's English." The sainted brothers Fowler likened albeit to such antiquated terms as thither (instead of "there"), perchance (replaced by "perhaps"), theretofore ("till then") and ere ("before").

But albeit, born in writing in Chaucer's 1385 Legend of Good Women, refused to die. In the 1965 revision of Fowler's Modern English Usage, Ernest Gowers cited its full meaning -- "all though it be that" -- and observed that "it has since been picked up and dusted and, though not to everyone's taste, is now freely used." And in his 1996 revision of the Fowler classic, Robert Burchfield shook his head in wonderment at "one of the most persistent archaic-sounding words in the language."

Albeit's synonym is the conjunction "although," and the meaning spreads over the stronger "even though" and the debater's "conceding the fact that." Its meaning also ranges from a stern "notwithstanding that" and "in spite of the fact that" to a grudging "granted that" and a confessional "admitting that." Albeit's first syllable is pronounced "all," like although (not like Al Capone).

What accounts for the persistence and recent renaissance of albeit, when so much of its Chaucerian cohort ere long went thither and we know not hereof? Why don't we just go with the familiar synonym -- in this case, its interchangeable word, although -- which aforetime won the 600-year usage battle?

Because it's short. (No sentence fragments!) I put the question to the Washington Post foreign copy chief yclept Tony Reid, who wrote the headline at the top of today's illuminating exegesis. "Albeit is shorter, for one," Reid replied. "And the tone of that word seems more definitive to me than although. Maybe because it's older it carries a little more weight. There is some part of my subconscious where my mother is running around that forced that word out of me. I know it's kind of old-timey, but when you're writing a headline, one word can make a difference."

I'll buy the second part of his rationale; though some people use albeit to affect a literary air, others imbue it with associations that give it an old-fashioned, intentionally stiff semantic color. I will dispute his first reason about brevity, however: if you drop the al from although, you get though, which has just as few letters as albeit. Although started as an emphasizer of the shorter word six centuries ago. But that al-emphasis has faded; today, though, while slightly more informal, means the same as although.

The only grammatical difference between them is that although is a conjunction -- connecting parts of speech -- while though can also function as an adverb. (As in: I'd steer clear of the voguish albeit, though.)

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