What Color is “Wan”?

By Maeve Maddox

My first encounter with the word wan [wŏn)] was in the first stanza of this poem by Sir John Suckling (1609-1642):

Why so pale and wan, fond lover?
Prithee, why so pale?
Will, when looking well can’t move her,
Looking ill prevail?
Prithee, why so pale?

I assumed that wan must be a synonym for pale, and I thought of pale as meaning “whitish” or “ashen.”

Many years later, I read this line about the approach of Grendel in Beowulf:

Com on wanre niht scriðan sceadugenga. (line 702)

Donaldson translates wanre (wan) as “black”:

There came gliding in the black night the walker in darkness.

The literal translation is:

Came in dark night to glide the shadow-goer.

From meaning such things as “dark/lacking light,/gloomy” in Old English, wan now means

Pallid, faded, sickly; unusually or unhealthily pale. Most frequently applied to the human face. (OED)

A wan smile is “a faint or forced smile (as of one sick or unhappy).”

The adverb wanly is still used to describe a sickly or pathetic smile:

she smiled wanly at the doctor

I finished the scene and smiled wanly at the casting director.

. . . she didn’t want to deflate the delight the stranger was obviously taking in his trick, so she smiled wanly, patiently waiting

The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (2008) gives these synonyms for wan:
pale
pallid
ashen
white
gray
anemic
colorless
bloodless
waxen
chalky
pasty
peaked [pē’kĭd]
sickly
washed out
drained
drawn
ghostly

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5 Responses to “What Color is “Wan”?”

  • Lawrence Miller

    I am almost never provoked to respond in comments to your articles; preferring the quiet enjoyment they afford. Today, however, I have two questions.

    1) What is the meaning of the word Prithee? Is it “pray thee” or perhaps a person’s name?

    2) What is your favorite thesaurus? Though I claim no expertise in the matter, I have always found Bartlett’s Roget’s Thesaurus to be very usable, but I see you mentioned Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus today. I wonder should I assume that your choice.

    It would be good to see your short list of writer’s helpers. God knows I need all the help I can get in that regard.

  • Maeve

    Lawrence,
    1. Correct. Prithee is literally “I pray thee.” It can also be translated as “I beg thee,” or plain “please.”

    2. I’ve come fairly recently to the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus and it would be the first thing after the cats and the laptop that I’d grab in case of fire. It is superb. I never bother with Roget’s anymore.

    3. Good idea.

  • Silke

    I recommend grabbing a copy of the Random House Word Menu.
    That’s a great helper for any writer, but it’s out of print.
    Another thing…
    If you can get the hardback version, get it, even if it’s a little older and possibly more expensive.
    Reason?
    The paperback’s type is so small, it’s very hard on the eyes after a while. Or invest in a magnifying glass.
    Still… if you see it somewhere – grab it.
    I really wish they re-released it. 🙂

  • Precise Edit

    Roget’s Thesaurus is wan beside the Oxford Thesaurus.

  • Lawrence Miller

    Wan, huh? I guess I better get the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus by Christine A. Lindberg (November 11, 2008). I am sure I will like it.

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