“Warn” Vs. “Forewarn”
the Hidden Psychology of Word Choice
24 November 2020
forewarn: to warn in advance
warn: to give notice to beforehand especially of danger or evil
I used “forewarn” in a recent article, but as soon as I typed the word, I second-guessed my decision. Could I use “warn” instead? The answer was obvious: Yes, of course I could. So, then, what was the difference between “forewarn” and “warn?” Or was it one of those all-too-common instances in the English language whereby the perennial misuse of a word leads to farcical synonyms, as with “flammable” and “inflammable?” Did anything justify the existence of “forewarn?”
The answer, I reasoned, must lie in its prefix, “fore,” which comes from Old English via Germanic languages, meaning “before in time, rank, position.” Clearly, then, “forewarn” indicates an advance warning. But isn’t a warning by its very nature in advance? You wouldn’t warn someone about a ball careening toward their noggin if it has already hit them in the head, would you? What was the point of the prefix?
“The Harpye Celaeno Forwarns much mischiefe too coom.”
– The Aeneid (16th Century Translation)
Warn vs. Forewarn: Timing
I turned to the feel factor. Sometimes words just feel a certain way. How did “forewarn” feel different from “warn?” My gut told me that the difference could be found in the timing. Both words suggest advance knowledge, but “warn” feels like it’s reacting to something imminent whereas “forewarn” feels more like planning. In this sense, the prefix lengthens the time between the urging of caution and the event itself. Was I right? I took to the internet to find out.
This English language and usage thread generally lines up with my gut, reinforcing the notion that “forewarn” suggests additional advance, or as one user put it, “forewarn” can “connote shades of prophecy.” Other users in the thread introduce some noteworthy distinctions. “Warn” can be used as a threat, and it can be employed after the fact, as in a “judge’s warning to a first-time offender guilty of a minor misdemeanor.”
There are others, like this copywriter, who believe “forewarning” is redundant. He thinks the prefix is superfluous, arguing that the “very nature of a ‘warning’” is that it is “delivered in advance.” Exactly the point I was making above.
Psychology of Word Choice
But I’m going to be honest: This isn’t about identifying nuances between two (slightly) different words. It’s about figuring out why I decided to use “forewarn” instead of “warn.” Did I possess a subconscious understanding of “forewarn” that led to that choice, the aforementioned “shades of prophecy,” or was there something else at work?
I wanted to understand why I gravitated toward “forewarn.” If “forewarn” wasn’t the most precise choice, why did I choose it? Understanding my choices is about self-awareness, and self-awareness, in my opinion, is the cornerstone of good writing.
Easy enough, right? Nope.
Self-awareness is elusive. We spend lifetimes trying to understand the choices we make. We get therapy. We meditate. We write. Many of us, maybe most of us, don’t even bother to understand why we do things. The less self-aware we are, the more it mucks up our lives. This is why so many of us fail to free ourselves from destructive cycles in relationships. Patterns repeat when we can’t see that they exist. The same principle applies to writing.
“Forewarn” Is For Smart People
Surely, using “forewarn” instead of “warn” for the sake of vanity is a venial sin. It doesn’t rise to the level of destructiveness posed by dysfunctional relationships. Of course not. But not understanding why we do things condemns us to repeat patterns invisible to us. I think we can agree, then, that not having control of our choices is a bad thing.
What does this pseudo-psycho-philosophical rambling have to do with “warn” and “forewarn?” OK, here it is:
I picked “forewarn” to sound smart, not because it was the better choice.
“Forewarn,” as I saw it, was the fancy version of “warn.” That’s the real reason it popped into my head. That’s not to say that there isn’t a difference between “forewarn” and “warn.” There is. But that difference is not why I chose it. “Forewarn” felt right, but the real reason why it felt right escaped me at first.
Marble Composition Notebooks
I’ve been consumed by words for a long time. Before dictionary apps, I carried around physical dictionaries and marble composition notebooks (to jot down the new words I encountered) almost everywhere I went. On trains. At home. At work. In waiting rooms. At bars. I have hundreds of notebook pages with thousands of words and definitions that I’ve amassed over the years. It’s fair to say I was (read: am) obsessed.
I wanted to raise an impenetrable army of polysyllabic words so that my ideas could never be challenged. This was borne of insecurity. I didn’t have confidence in my ideas, so I dressed them up to hide their weaknesses. My writing was bloated with SAT words that impressed no one but me. That tendency lurks within me yet.
I still have those notebooks, but my approach has evolved somewhat. I’m more interested in achieving a deeper understanding of words I’m already familiar with than gaining a superficial knowledge of a new set of rare words. I’m more interested in the names of things with specific functions, like “rivet” or “winch,” words that are not easily replaced. I prefer to explore the minute distinctions of similar words so that I know exactly why I choose one over the other.
“Felicity” Vs. “Happiness”
Why, for instance, would I use the word “felicity” in place of the more common “happiness?” In what instances would the former be the better choice? Maybe there isn’t a “better” choice. These words are semantic cousins but etymological strangers. “Happiness” comes from Old Norse, while “felicity” hails from Latin via Old French. Maybe these words are simply the products of waves of invasions that left their mark, producing words with similar meanings and different histories. Perhaps we backfill these nuances as a way to justify the outrageous excess of words that is the English language.
Or maybe it’s these unique histories that give “felicity” and “happiness” their signatures. I don’t know. I’m no linguist. I’m no etymologist. I’m just trying to understand words. I care less about how the words got here, and more about what they’re doing here. I care even more about why I choose words. If I’m going to use “felicity” or “forewarn,” I need a specific reason. Otherwise, I’m just replacing words I know with fancy synonyms. I’m using them for vanity.
Hemingway Vs. Faulkner
The only way I know how to avoid choosing a word for the wrong reason is to understand it inside and out. When in doubt, I go with the words I know in my bones. The words Hemingway once called, in a response to Faulkner’s public provocation, “older and simpler and better.” The foundational words. The indivisible words. The sui generis words.
(Shit, I did it again.)