On the Use of the Word ‘Gotten’ by Sarah Woodbury

Posted by on Feb 9, 2015 in Featured Book, Historical Tidbits, Medieval Great Britain | 2 comments

The-Lost-Brother185x280Several UK readers have wondered about the use of the word ‘gotten’ in my medieval mysteries. Since the word is not in common usage in England right now, it seems odd to them to read it at all, and a glaring ‘Americanism’ in a book set in the medieval period. At first glance, this might appear to be yet another instance of ‘two countries separated by a common language,’ but as it turns out, the history of the word ‘gotten’ is a lot more interesting than that.

‘Gotten’ is, in fact, an ancient English word that was in use in England at the time America was colonized by the English. Over the centuries, the Americans kept on using it and the English did not.

Origin:  1150-1200(v.) Middle English geten < Old Norse geta to obtain, beget; cognate with Old English –gietan (> Middle English yeten), German-gessen, in vergessen to forget; (noun) Middle English: something gotten, offspring, derivative of the v.  http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/gotten

“British English discontinued the use of ‘have gotten’ as a form of the past participle for ‘get’ over 300 years ago. The British Colonies on the other hand continued to use it. As a result American English continued the use of ‘have gotten’ while British English relegated the word to obsolescence. It is now rarely used in the British version of the English language. American English continues to use ‘have gotten’ to emphasis the action performed. In American English language ‘has got’ implies possession. It is assumed that if ‘has got’ is used that it is referencing what the person has in their possession. On the other hand, ‘has gotten’ implies that the person acquired, received or obtained an item.”  http://www.reference.com/motif/reference/is-gotten-grammatically-correct  also: http://www.pbs.org/speak/ahead/change/ruining/ 
“Just seeing the word is enough to set the hair of some British English speakers on end. Yet, despite the many claims that it is an Americanism, it is most definitely of British origin and the Oxford English Dictionary traces its first use to the 4th century. Since then, it has been used by many notable British English writers, including Shakespeare, Bacon and Pope and it was one of a number of words that were transported across the Atlantic with the settlers. But then it slipped out of use in British English, along with such words as fall for ‘autumn’ (British English having opted to adopt the French word) and guess in the sense of ‘think’.” http://www.miketodd.net/encyc/gotten.htm

‘Got’ is used in Welsh–or at least as much of it as I have so far managed to learn. ‘I have got’ (mae gen i) is a common phrase in modern Welsh and even has its own system of conjugation (you have got, he has got). Of course, my medieval characters aren’t speaking English anyway, so whether they might have used ‘gotten’ as well as ‘got’, like their English counterparts, is something I don’t know! However, if my medieval characters were speaking English (which they generally are not), they would have used, ‘gotten’!

And for those who continue to be skeptical, perhaps a few quotes from Francis Bacon (written 1601) will suffice:

“This envy, being in the Latin word invidia, goeth in the modern language, by the name of discontentment; of which we shall speak, in handling sedition. It is a disease, in a state, like to infection. For as infection spreadeth upon that which is sound, and tainteth it; so when envy is gotten once into a state, it traduceth even the best actions thereof, and turneth them into an ill odor. And therefore there is little won, by intermingling of plausible actions. For that doth argue but a weakness, and fear of envy, which hurteth so much the more, as it is likewise usual in infections; which if you fear them, you call them upon you.” ‘Of Envy’

“And because it works better, when anything seemeth to be gotten from you by question, than if you offer it of yourself, you may lay a bait for a question, by showing another visage, and countenance, than you are wont; to the end to give occasion, for the party to ask, what the matter is of the change? As Nehemias did; And I had not before that time, been sad before the king.” ‘Of Cunning’

“Meaning that riches gotten by good means, and just labor, pace slowly … Riches gotten by service, though it be of the best rise, yet when they are gotten by flattery, feeding humors, and other servile conditions, they may be placed amongst the worst.” ‘Of Riches’ http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/bacon/bacon_essays.html

Released on 8 February 2015, The Lost Brother is the sixth Gareth & Gwen Medieval Mystery. This series of novels is set in medieval Wales during the twelfth century and follows the adventures of Gareth and Gwen, two sleuths in the court of Owain Gwynedd, King of North Wales. The characters in the series only use the word ‘gotten’ when they couldn’t possibly say anything else.

Sarah Woodbury, February 9, 2015


  1. Of course, no one is more authoritative than Francis Bacon! “Has got” sounds very modern British to my linguist’s ears. Your ‘gotten’ both sounds correct and, happily, is correct.

    Thanks for a fun post. Language is tricky in writing historicals. We want our prose to be easy to read, to sound natural in the mind’s ear of the reader, but also to have the flavor of the distant past. It’s a fine line. I struggle with curses. My characters (not Francis) would say, “‘Zounds!” But that feels so
    over-the-top dramatical. Correct, but wrong.

  2. Well done, Sarah! I can well imagine the flack you’ve received over so called ‘Americanisms’. It’s true that it always upsets us Brits but some time back Bill Bryson made us word snobs realise that Americans actually speak olde English! As you point out English over here in the UK has been much altered – and enriched – with imported words from France, Arabic, Italian and so on. And you are quite right, we really have no idea quite how people spoke in medieval times anyway. If your books are translated, I wonder what words they use then??