Two Words: Forbear / Forebear

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We just discussed “forgo” and “forego”. The situation is similar with “forbear” and “forebear”.

To forbear is to manifest great patience under extreme difficulty or suffering. “Forbear” is a verb. Its noun form is “forbearance”.


A forebear is an ancestor. With that extra “e”, the word normally is a noun. Your forebears are your forefathers and foremothers.

Full disclosure: I’ve never heard of foremothers or seen the word in writing. But I’m assuming it’s a real word, since my spell-checker isn’t correcting it. Anyway, “foremothers” ought to be a real word, since our feminine ancestors deserve just as much credit as their mates for our being here.

That’s also a good reason to use the word “forebear”, which is gender-neutral – and far less awkward than “forefathers and foremothers”.

As with “forgo” and “forego”, the key to remembering the distinction is that telltale “fore” (as in “before”). If we’re talking about child-bearers before us (meaning our ancestors), the word is “forebear”.

But I hope you’ll just forbear with me whenever I harp too intently on these lexical fine points.

Spelling aside, one difference is that “forbear” places the accent on its second syllable. “Forebear” has it on the first.

(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)


Two Words: Forbear / Forebear — 2 Comments

  1. Excellent article again. I knew these had a pronunciation difference (hence my wondering if forgo/forego had a similar difference). Foremother seems to be in my Mac’s dictionary and two others: MW, Oxford. Of course, the Mac one is probably derived from of those anyway… It *should* be a word in its own right, because mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) is used to track genealogy and ancestry to ancient times. This genetic material is acquired from the mother’s side and it is not changed. So you can go back from mother to her mother to her mother to her mother…. all the way to where it first originated. mtDNA is a vital to tracking how different ethnicities (used loosely) have originated, developed and traveled through time.

    • Good points all. This seems to provide a scientific rationale for the Jewish custom of tracing lineage through the mother.

      Although I just looked this up, and apparently it isn’t as cut-and-dried as I had thought. Some forms of Judaism are matrilineal, meaning one’s ancestral Jewishness (or lack thereof) depends on the mother’s ethnicity, not the father’s. But some branches of Judaism are more traditionally patrilineal, looking instead to the father’s status. The Old Testament records many cases of offspring accepted as Jewish because of their fathers, even though they were born of non-Jewish mothers. And the matrilineal tradition, according to Wikipedia, wasn’t officially codified in Rabbinic Judaism until the Second Century CE.

      I didn’t mean there was anything wrong with “foremothers” as a word — simply that I hadn’t seen it in use. You’re right, though: It should be a word; in fact, it has to be, given everything else.

      Also, in some contexts, the more open-ended term “forerunner” could serve as a gender-neutral term for ancestors. (Though a forerunner isn’t necessarily an ancestor, which is why I say “in some contexts”.)

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