Looking up “albeit”

Posted by on April 30, 2012

One of the interesting things about English, and other languages too, for that matter, is that a relatively small number of words account for a large percentage of everything we read or hear (or say or write). The most frequent 100 words account for about 45%, and the most frequent 7,500 account for about 90%. These 7,500 words appear in red in our online dictionary, and are graded with stars into three bands.

One of the features of frequent words is that the more frequent a word is, the more likely it is to have lots of meanings, lots of different grammatical patterns, lots of collocates… Take take, for example. Our entry has 26 different meanings, and a lot of phrases too.

There’s a lot that you need to know about these frequent words, especially if you’re a learner of English, so it’s hardly surprising that the most frequently looked-up words are high frequency: time, get, make

Over the last month, the most frequently looked-up low frequency word is albeit. It’s a strange looking word, and one of only a handful of words in English that end -eit. Some others are:

conceit /kənˈsiːt/
counterfeit /ˈkaʊntə(r)fɪt/
Fahrenheit /ˈfærənhaɪt/ (props to those who object that this is hardly an English word, though you can find it in plenty of English dictionaries).

There are three different pronunciations for the final vowels there, so how should we pronounce albeit? Is it

/ɔːlˈbiːt/?
/ɔːlˈbɪt/?
/ɔːlˈbaɪt/?

If you think that might be a trick question, you’re right. It’s none of those — it’s got three syllables and is pronounced /ɔːlˈbiːɪt/, being as it is a compression of all be it, which itself is a mangling of all though it be that. Apparently,  according to the OED, before it became fully synthesized there was also a past tense, all were it, which they support with a quote from Chaucer‘s translation of Boethius’s “De Consolatione Philosphiæ”: Al were it so þat sche was ful of so greet age. That Chaucer quote dates back to 1374, a mere 738 years ago, yet it doesn’t really exemplify the usage of albeit as a word which introduces a contrast or change of circumstance.

For a more illustrative example, here’s one from last Friday, in an article about the first wedding anniversary of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, (or Wills and Kate as they’re also known):

Where the couple, and their PR team, have been particularly successful, commentators say, is in projecting the image of a relatively ordinary pair, albeit one that has access to palaces, castles, glitzy red carpets and the odd butler or two.

As to why this particular low frequency word is so frequently looked up — frankly, I have no idea.

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Comments (2)
  • I’m equally mystified by why this is so often looked up. Pronunciation must be one reason, but it’s also amazingly versatile in its grammar. The corpus shows it can be followed by:
    a prepositional phrase: this is the commonest pattern; an adjective; an adverb; a noun; a concessive clause (where it behaves like although). Examples follow (in that order):
    This department, albeit with an ever-changing title, has continued to this day.
    There is evidence, albeit weak, that he has even had links with al-Qaeda.
    With so many people able to come and go in the buildings the theft of belongings does happen, albeit rarely.
    Nicholson has made a reputation out of being one of the world’s great lovers, albeit a womaniser to boot.
    More arms were being fashioned in Falkirk, albeit the town remained quiet.

    What a useful word!
    In about 3% of cases, it is followed by a that-clause, e.g.:
    I was delighted to see that his view was very close to that which I have set out for Congress over the past 4 years, albeit that his version was much more eloquent and erudite.
    This doesn’t sound quite right to me, but there are plenty of examples.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 30th April, 2012
  • People might look it up sometimes because they’re not sure if it’s acceptable in certain constructions: they’re used to seeing it in certain ways, and when an unfamiliar pattern appears they realise they mightn’t have the word’s full measure – or they want to prove the writer wrong!
    I suppose that’s the same as crediting its versatility.
    And it is an odd-looking word, just a blink away from German Arbeit.

    Posted by Stan on 1st May, 2012
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