Origin of Lo and Behold

Richard G. asks: What does the “lo” in lo and behold mean?

visionLike a wordy exclamation point, the two defining words in “lo and behold” mean basically the same thing. Specifically, the word lo!, meaning “look!” first appeared in Middle English (1100-1500 AD) in the 1200s, and essentially was clipped from the early English imperative word for “look,” lok.

An even older variant meaning Oh!, derived from an Old English (500-1100 AD) expression of surprise la, is said by some to have appeared as far back as Beowulf (approximately 800 AD), although this is somewhat up for debate.

Behold is likewise a child of Old English, with early iterations of bihaldan and behealdan meaning both “give regard to,” and “to belong to.” Although the word is related to Old Saxon and Old German words, including bihaldan and behalten; only in English do any of these words refer to watching and looking.

One early source containing both lo and behold in the same sentence, although not adjacent, can be found in the first edition of the King James Bible (1611), where at Genesis15:3 it says, “And Abraham said; Behold, to mee thou has given no seed: and loe, one borne in my house is mine heire.”

As for the first instance of someone putting the two together in the relatively modern expression, it is generally thought that the first instance occurred in the May to August 1799 edition of The Monthly Review where it states: “But lo! and behold! gallantry and Jinttie arc laid aside, the chemist and the scholar are dismissed, and the colour-grinder appears…”

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Bonus Facts:

  • Another curious pairing of words you might have encountered at some point is lorem ipsum. Essentially replacing meaningful text with unintelligible filler, the practice of lorem ipsum (named for the first two words in the standard tract) removes the distraction of needing to come up with filler content, so designers, printers, desktop publishers and others can focus on other things (i.e., typography, page layout, graphics, images and font). The custom has been used in the printing industry since the 1500s when an entrepreneurial printer scrambled up a bunch of type to make a specimen book. The “standard form” of lorem ipsum was pulled from Cicero’s de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (The Extremes of Good and Evil), written in 45 B.C., although numerous iterations abound.
  • Today there are a number of word generators that produce useful gibberish in English, as well, which leads back to lo and behold, and a generator that ostensibly explains the phrase’s origins, but which in truth produces paragraphs filled with nonsense, such as: “Literal Behold, mean something like opening a memory from Map, defined as follows: hex decimal . . . ” and “Like a similar origin A fowl; the origins lo old testament story Met a here 3, 2012 casually reads luke 8 . . . .”
  • The standard lorem ipsum text is roughly translated into English as: “Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise, except to obtain some advantage from it? But who has any right to find fault with a man who chooses to enjoy a pleasure that has no annoying consequences, or one who avoids a pain that produces no resultant pleasure?”
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