Unbeknownst

By Maeve Maddox

A British reader questions what he sees as a recent use of unbeknownst:

Curious about the current (British/Irish English only?) replacement of ‘unknown to him’ by ‘unbeknown/unbeknownst to him’ (university students’ work attests to it in yoof-speak, and BBC documentaries to it in them elder lemons what should beknow better). Is this also creeping into American English?

Partial paraphrase of the reader’s comment:

The writing of university students offers evidence that “unbeknownst to him” is current in youth slang, and the phrase occurs in BBC documentaries written by old-timers who should know better than to use it.

Although some speakers feel that unbeknownst “sounds medieval,” it is a fairly recent coinage, although not as recent as the reader seems to think: it dates from the 19th century.

The first OED citation is from a letter written by novelist Mrs. Gaskell:

You don’t see me, but I often am sitting in the rocking-chair unbeknownst to you. (1848)

The phrase “unbeknown to,” on the other hand, is documented as early as 1636. How the -st became attached to the word is—well—unknown.

A Google search indicates that the phrases “unbeknown to him” and “unbeknownst to him” are in use, but they rank far behind the more conventional “unknown to him”:

1. “unbeknown to him” About 151,000 results 
2. “unbeknownst to him” About 391,000 results 
3. “unknown to him” About 12,800,000 results

On the Ngram Viewer, Number One does not even show; Number Two makes a slight showing, and Number Three shows a marked decline in 1900, but remains well ahead of “unbeknownst to him.”

As for the phrase’s “creeping into American English,” it did that eighty-four years after Mrs. Gaskell used it—in Light in August by William Faulkner: “Interfering with his work unbeknownst to him.”

The use of unbeknownst in modern English is probably best described as “jocular” or “colloquial,” although it can be found in professional contexts:

Description of a car accident, NBC News
Unbeknownst to the first people who tried to help the victim of the crash, an adult male, the water was electrified.

Report of an experiment, Chicago Booth, publication of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business
Unbeknownst to them, the first part of the experiment served simply to expose them, in the form of a celebrity-trivia quiz, to pictures of high-profile, successful individuals.

Article about deception, Wired.
Unbeknownst to the subject, the boy is wearing a radio receiver in his ear, and every word he says is transmitted to him by a 37-year-old university professor sitting in a nearby room.

Article about stress of modern life, The New Republic
Unbeknownst to her at the time, a shooting had occurred the previous day in the same neighborhood. 

Feature about racism among children, PBS Frontline
Unbeknownst to his parents, he had started a blog, which they only learned about when another parent called to warn them.

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7 Responses to “Unbeknownst”

  • ApK

    I have always taken a different connotation in “unbeknownst to him” than “unknown to him.”
    “Unbeknownst” has always suggested to me that the knowledge was, if not intentionally concealed, then at least resulting in some other hidden effect or consequence to the lack of knowledge.
    “Unbeknownst to him, the murderer was standing not 5 feet away.”

    I would never choose “unbeknownst” in more pedestrian situations like these:
    “The man in the photo was unknown to him.”
    “The scientist admitted the mechanism of the process was unknown to him.”

  • thebluebird11

    I definitely agree with ApK, and also want to say that I do use the word unbeknownst in everyday convo, without any jocular connotation whatsoever. I know that my vocabulary is somewhat better than other people’s (e.g. my friends), but even some of them will use that word occasionally, so that’s the vocabulary report from the US!

  • Sally Bahner

    This just in: “Unbeknownst to her parents, Arthur flew to Morocco to meet the Facebook friend this week, police said Thursday.” (From the Hartford Courant
    Ugh.

  • venqax

    I had no inkling that “unbeknownst” was a questionable word. It is an uncommon one, admittedly, but I would say the reason for that weighs in its favor: It has a very specific meaning. Unbeknownst and unknown are not exactly synonymous. Take the example above:

    .“Unbeknownst to her parents, Arthur flew to Morocco to meet the Facebook friend this week, police said Thursday.”

    The only other way to say exactly that would be something like, “Though her parents had no knowledge of it, Arthur flew to Morocco…” or, “Without her parents’ knowledge,…” In the first case one word– unbeknownst– has to be replaced by multiple words. When a single word can serve over multiple words, it is generally to that word’s credit and communication’s value. In the second case, the number of words is unaltered but the construction is arguably clumsier. “Unbeknownst” is succinct. That’s good, too. The word “unknown” is not an exact synonym. “Unknown to her parents,…” could mean that her parents had no knowledge of her as opposed to her actions. Likewise the effort is worthy to revive words like heretofore, henceforth, and thenceforth which are just more precise and economical than saying “up until now”; or “from now on”, or (worse) “from this point forward”; or “from that point forward” or “ever since then”.

    Unbeknown, sans the antique –st, would seem valid as well, though the –st construction seems more common to me. In SAE, -st-less forms are generally preferred– “amongst” is really dialectical and I’ve never seen or heard “whilst” in Standard American usage.

    As to the second point raised by the original question about whether unbeknownst is a “real” word, as opposed to a sudden invention, I don’t know whence that idea would come (ha! another handy revival!) In the US, at least, I’ve encountered the word occasionally over my (to me) unbelievably long lifetime so have never had any reason to think it was newfangled. And the evidence seems to back that up. Although as Maeve said, it is younger than it sounds. So, evidently unbeknownst to some, unbeknownst has been alive for a long time is has a valid license to operate.

    As an aside I hope, for her sake, that Arthur is the Morocco-flown girl’s last name. I’m old-fashioned. I guesst.

  • thebluebird11

    venqax: re: your last comment (the “aside”), I did several double-takes reading that sentence, and it had nothing to do with the word unbeknownst. Contrary to your assumption (that Arthur is a woman’s last name, which didn’t even occur to me), I assumed that this was a case of a dangling participle or whatever you call them, and that what was meant was that Arthur flew to see a Moroccan girl, whose parents did not know he was coming. So the original sentence could then read, “Unbeknownst to [random girl’s name]’s parents, Arthur flew to Morocco to meet the Facebook friend this week.” I did not see the original article so I don’t know if my assumption is correct. If in fact Arthur is a woman’s (last) name, then the sentence would be correct. And certainly the word unbeknownst serves the perfect function in that sentence, as you pointed out.

  • thebluebird11

    update: Yes, the teen’s name is Rebecca Arthur, and she did in fact fly to Morocco unbeknownst to her parents. I will keep my thoughts on that to myself because this is a family-friendly website.

  • venqax

    But good point, bluebird. You could have been correct and without further context it was awkwardly unbeknownst to us.

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