What is “Alas”?

Alas!Alas, how many times have you seen this word? Odds are, if you’ve studied anything up through Shakespeare, you have seen this woeful word. And no, it’s not just there to help Shakespeare maintain his iambic pentameter or whatever else. Today I will help you understand the meaning of this word, where it came from, and how it’s used.

The meaning

There are two parts of alas that we need to understand.

  1. It is an interjection, which is used to express emotion.
  2. The definition, provided by Merriam-Webster, means “to express unhappiness, pity, or concern.”

It should also be noted that alas is a 13th century Middle English word (See what is Middle English?). To truly understand its meaning, we must examine its roots.

What is interesting is that alas, which is based off of Old French Middle English, is actually made up of two words that have been combined for convenience. The first is ah which means “I am,” and las,which means “miserable.” That’s right, “I am miserable.” In literature, when you see alas, it is most likely displaying the emotion of misery.

But wait!

It didn’t always mean “miserable.” Originally, alas meant “weary” and descended from the Latin word “lassus.” Why did it change? No one knows, but I think it had something to do with added drama of the middle ages ;-).

Final thoughts

I hope this cleared things up. If you are still confused, just remember this: Alas = The speaker is being melodramatic.

Good luck!

Posted in Grammar Quick Fix.