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The meaning and origin of the expression: Woe betide you

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.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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