On Behalf of Jamais Vu

Do you ever have an experience where, without warning, something that you’re familiar with feels suddenly like you’re encountering it for the very first time?

There’s actually a term for this: it’s jamais vu, the opposite of déjà vu. Instead of the feeling of having seen something before (when you never have—that’s déjà vu), jamais vu is the feeling that you’re encountering something only for the very first time (when you know that, in fact, you have encountered that thing many times).

Déjà vu is a relatively new term in English, first borrowed from the French around 1903 according to sources. I’ve come across a few fuzzy references to suggest that jamais vu has been around for about the same amount of time, but it doesn’t appear in any dictionary I’ve consulted. My searches turned up some French uses early in the 20th century, but I can’t confirm a strictly English use prior to 2000.

Every once in a great while I’ll have this jamais vu experience with a word or phrase. This is not terribly surprising, as some of the few experiments involving jamais vu involve the use of rapid word repetition to trigger it. Note this one especially.*

It most recently happened to me with the word “behalf.” I had typed the word out several times in the course of editing a document, and somewhere around the fourth or fifth use I looked at it and thought behalf…that’s not really a word, is it?”

That’s a very strange experience to have, where one goes from automatically using a string of characters with a straightforward meaning to questioning whether or not you just made the word up and that it means absolutely nothing. It’s especially disconcerting when you can’t immediately dispel the feeling, which happened to me in this case. After pondering the last appearance in the document, then deleting and re-typing it several times, I was only able to shake the feeling by looking behalf up in an online dictionary to prove that it existed (and that I was using it—and spelling it—correctly). It was a very strange few moments indeed.

Jamais vu aside, behalf still strikes me as one of the odder words in English. In fact, it is. It’s one of those linguistic relics that dates back a very long way, but has only an extremely narrow and limited existence in current English: it’s only used as part of the phrase “on behalf of” (rarely “in behalf of”) and occasionally in the construction “on <some entity’s> behalf.”

According to the OED, the noun behalf was originally a phrase (“be healfe”) meaning “by the side” but then fell into use mostly as a preposition—the same way we might use around or near or…before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, or beyond. It turns out that those “be-“ prepositions have similar origins to behalf. Some of their meanings have wobbled or changed over the centuries before settling into their current definitions, but they all began as (and for the most part still function as) words that indicate relative position. The verb begin, which slipped into the previous sentence (began) almost without me noticing it, shares some roots with these others in the murky mists of etymology.

Behalf has been documented since 1300 or so, but in the past two centuries it has been rarely used except in the sense discussed here. It once had a plural form (behalfs), but that fell away with the word’s older uses.

The etymology above is summarized from the OED, but Merriam-Webster has a note regarding on behalf vs in behalf that I found to be of interest: “A body of opinion favors in with the ‘interest, benefit’ sense of behalf and on with the ‘support, defense’ sense. This distinction has been observed by some writers but overall has never had a sound basis in actual usage.” Note that for the “usage superstitions” file.

When someone acts on behalf of someone else, it means that they speak for the benefit of or in the interest of or to intercede for that other party. Acting on your own behalf…well, that meaning is self-evident.

My instinct would be that you’ll most commonly encounter behalf near and in the legal system: in filings, transcripts, summaries of proceedings, and so forth. It also gets rolled out a lot in what I think of as public ceremonial settings: when someone makes a statement or takes an action on behalf of a larger group. “I thank you on behalf of all residents of the city,” or “The entire class of 2021 appreciates your efforts on our behalf.”

Not much more needs to be said on behalf of behalf. My jamais vu experience aside, it’s a real word, it’s an old word, and it’s a word used only in a few very specific ways.

*And if you read that article title without catching the word duplication then you’ve got some work to do before taking a job as a copyeditor or proofreader!

About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small businesses meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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