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The meaning and origin of the expression: Woe is me

Woe is me

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Woe is me'?

I am distressed; sad; grieved.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Woe is me'?

This occurs in the Bible, Job 10:15 in the form 'woe unto me'.

Job is one of the oldest books in the Old Testament, early versions of which date from about 1200BC, making the phrase 3,200 years old in its original language. The first occurrence of it in English would have been Wycliffe's Bible translation in 1382.

Job 10:15: If I be wicked, woe unto me; and if I be righteous, yet will I not lift up my head. I am full of confusion; therefore see thou mine affliction;

The Bible has several instances of the 'woe is me' version of the phrase:

Psalms 120:5: Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar!

Isaiah 6:5: Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.

Jeremiah 4:31: For I have heard a voice as of a woman in travail, and the anguish as of her that bringeth forth her first child, the voice of the daughter of Zion, that bewaileth herself, that spreadeth her hands, saying, Woe is me now! for my soul is wearied because of murderers.

The meaning and origin of the phrase 'Woe is me'Shakespeare also used woe is me in Hamlet, 1602:


Blasted with ecstasy. Oh, woe is me,
T' have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

Although the expression is biblical in origin it is reasonable to list it as Shakespearian as, without the Bard's use of it, we may not have adopted it into English. Not that he would have acknowledged the borrowing - in all his 37 plays he doesn't mention the word bible once.

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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