Sunday, October 16, 2011

A-Hunting We Will Go

Ever wonder about the a- tacked in front of some verbs? Where did it originate? Does it (or did it) have any special meaning?

We're familiar with this construction now only from a few old folk songs like "A-hunting we will go", a few old English Christmas carols "Here we go a-wassailing" and "six geese a-laying", and the 1969 film "Daddy's Gone A-Hunting" which borrowed the name (and little else) from a silent 1925 MGM film of the same name. It is also found in a line of the Knight's song to Alice in Through the Looking Glass: "an aged aged man, A-sitting on a gate" (

Wikipedia describes it as an "archaic intensifying prefix". David Crystal in By Hook or By Crook explains that the a- originally meant the action is on-going, something you do over and over. "A-sitting" indicates the old man had been sitting on the gate for a long time, or was accustomed to doing so. Its use in this regard died out centuries ago but has been kept alive by poets and song-writers who found it useful to fit the meter of their compositions. All of the examples given above are relatively recent and likely used for this reason. "A-wassailing" was composed about 1850 and "A-hunting we will go" was written in 1877 for "The Beggar's Opera". "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is older, first published in 1780 and likely somewhat older than that. Through the Looking Glass was published in 1871.

The a- construction also survived at least into the 20th century in the Appalachian English dialect. One can imagine a stereotypical hillbilly leaning on the door of his mountain shack, rifle in the crook of his arm, saying "I ain't afeerd o' nobody". It was taken there by the early settlers and because of their cultural isolation survived long after it was dropped by English-speakers everywhere else. For more on this fascinating dialect see

Lately I've been a-reading By Hook or By Crook by the English linguist David Crystal. It's subtitled "A Journey in Search of English" but I would describe it as a "delightful romp". As Crystal describes his journey through Wales and England recording local dialects, his narrative gets sidetracked into many different directions, all of them (to me anyway) quite interesting. I will share more of these in shorter posts like this one rather than wait for time to compose longer essays.

1 comment:

  1. I can think of more recent examples, too. In S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, characters say, "You ain't a-woofing," meaning, "You're not joking."