Column: ‘Bereft’ or ‘bereaved?’


I heard something on the national news this week that sent me on a confusing journey of grammatical discovery.

I’ll confess to not knowing the exact context of the statement, because there were a lot of TVs going and I wasn’t really paying attention to any of them, but I did catch an anchor say this: “… the bereft family …”

“That should be ‘bereaved,’ shouldn’t it?” I thought. And then I thought, “I can get Steve and Brian to pay me to write about this.”

Thus, here we are.

“Bereaved” is, as I thought, the accepted past participle and adjectival form of the word “bereave” – to be “deprived of a loved one through a profound absence,” especially death.

In a etymological tidbit sure to please the “Firefly” fans out there, the word “bereave” originates from the English and Scottish “reavers,” who, according to the Oxford English Dictionaries, got their name from the verb “reave” (and, more to the point, their penchant for “reaving,” or plundering, each other’s land).”Bereft” is, Oxford says, the archaic past participle of “bereaved.”

That’s all well and good, except we still say “bereft;” its primary definition being “deprived of or lacking something, especially a nonmaterial asset.”

OK, so, “bereaved” is for those mourning the dead, and “bereft” is for those missing something nonmaterial, like humor (you know, like a Steve Harvey joke).

But, annoyingly enough, Oxford still includes a second definition for “bereft:” a person “lonely and abandoned, especially through someone’s death or departure.” Come on!

My two cents: “Bereaved” is specifically used when you are deprived of a loved one, through death or otherwise, so let’s keep it that way. “Bereft” can be used for other situations, like a wall with no decorations or chili with no noodles (It’s just not the same! I’m looking at you, Texas.).

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