At one time, the word went was used in literature to mean ‘a course, path, way, or passage’ (Oxford English Dictionary). Chaucer, for instance wrote of
a floury grene went Ful thikke of gras.
Spenser used it too. But sometime around the sixteenth or seventeenth century the word became restricted to local or ‘dialect’ use. Since the OED entry hasn’t yet been revised, I don’t know how much currency it had in the twentieth century, and I’d be very surprised if it is still used.
Where does it come from? We don’t know anything about its history before its use in place names mentioned in a thirteenth-century record:
1241 in The Place-Names of Essex, ed. P. H. Reaney, EPN Soc. 12 (1935) 593: Pondwente; Vernevente.Notice that these are Essex place names.
The dictionaries simply speculate that it has some relationship to the verb WEND, which seems likely enough. The fact that the past tense of this verb is now the identical form went is a red herring: forms with the past tense in t arose only around 1200, and if the two words are related, the link has to go back much further than that—back into continental Germanic, in fact. So the thing to notice is that that the oldest recorded form of this verb, in the Gothic language, was wandjan. Notice the root a and the suffixial -j-.
The OED notes that our word often occurs in the compound expressions three-went-way and four-went-way. OED has an entry FOUR-WENT adj., which only occurs in four-went-way, ‘a point where four roads meet’. There are examples from 1777, referring to Kent, and 1865, where it is written four-want-way). Notice the spelling want, and Kent.
With the benefit of experience, OED placed three-went-way under THREE. It has one 1787 example from a different edition of the same book that gives the 1777 example mentioned above. It is of course ‘a point where three roads meet without intersecting’.
Now although the word used to be widespread in England—OED has examples that localize it within the boundaries of the historic county of Lancashire—uses since the seventeenth century in the form went seem to cluster in Kent (if the rhyme may be excused):
1659 J. Philipot Villare Cantianum There being divers wents and wandrings at this place. [Wing P1989] [eebo]
1776 T. Fisher Kentish Traveller’s Compan. ii. 37 This lane will bring the traveller to a four-went way, on which is fixed a direction-post. [OED]
1883 Western Antiquary 2 24 A common country designation of cross-roads is a four went-way.
1917 F. Watt Canterbury Pilgrims & their Ways 115 Here is the Four-Went-Way. The chief road from the Island of Sheppey crosses the Canterbury highway and goes on to Maidstone.
1976 J. Benson & R. H. Hiscock Hist. Gravesend 114 To this Pocock refers in his Chronology, where he records that a suicide named Knight was buried ‘in the four-went way near the Sun public-house, now a private house’ (1797).
It seems in fact, if we include the want form I’m about to discuss, to become largely a south-eastern word.
And it also looks as if four-went-way may have continued in use, fossilizing went after it had largely died out.
So now we come to the Essex Wills, where a testator in 1561 (I. 283) left a bequest
To the mending of the highway lying by the four wants in Great Parndon
Anyone reading this without knowing the background might imagine perhaps an inn whose sign carried an image of ‘the four wants’ (thirst, hunger, shelter, and sleep, perhaps?) This is not so fanciful in view of the Five Alls (sometimes Four Alls), for which OED has an entry, exemplified from 1718:
the five (or occasionally four) social groups or classes into which society can be notionally divided, from the monarchy to the poor countryman; an image or representation of these, esp. on an inn sign
But it’s nothing so colourful. This must be the crossroads. But where exactly? Well, sadly, the small village of Great Parndon has been absorbed by the mighty spread of the garden city of Harlow, so it’s difficult to tell where the crossroads was. There seem to be two possible locations on the nineteenth-century plan of the village in the Victoria County History (Essex). Perhaps people who know Harlow well could say.
So what about want, with an a not an e? First of all, the English Dialect Dictionary, at went sb.1, gives want and wont as Hertfordshire and Essex forms. The spelling with o implies that the word is pronounced like the familiar verb want, in which the preceding w has turned an original a sound into o. The assertion that the form is especially associated with these two counties and Middlesex as well is borne out by printed evidence:
1593 J. Norden Speculum Britanniae [STC 18535 ‘historicall and chorographicall description of Middlesex’] 15 Another auncient high waie which did leade to Edgworth, and so to Saint Albons, was ouer Hampsted heath, and thence to, and through an old lane, called Hendon wante, neere Hendon, through which it passed to Edgwoorth, whence it passed ouer Brokeley hilles, through part of Hertfordshire, by Radnet, Colnestreete, Saint Stephens, and Saint Mychaels, leauing Saint Albons, halfe a mile in the east. This way of some is helde to be Watlingstreete, one of the fower high waies, which Bellinus caused to be made, & leadeth (as some affirme) through Watlingstreete in London.
1787 Jrnls. House of Lords XXXVII. 8 Mar. 614/1 And for repairing and widening the Road from Epping through the Parishes of Northweald, Bassett, Bobbingworth, High Ongar, Chipping Ongar, and Shelley, to the Four Want Way in the said Parish of Shelley.
1851 N. & Q. 21 June 508/1 Four Want Way (Vol. iii., pp. 168. 434.).—A cross road, or that point where four roads meet, is frequently called by the peasantry in Kent ‘the four vents’; in other counties, ‘the four wents’, ‘the four want way’, &c.
1881 H. B. Yerborough Leaves from a Hunting Diary in Essex i. 20 The wake of hounds, which just short of the Four Wants swung to the right and crossed the road below the Dun Cow.
1923 E. Gepp Essex Dialect Dict. 121 Wants, a meeting of three or four roads. Sometimes in the form of ‘three-want way’, ‘four-want way’. Want is a dialect form of went, originally a way.
1966 Trans. Essex Archaeol. Soc. 185 four, fower want(e)s 1640–1 St.P. the four wants 1640 St.P. four want way 1646, 1675 St.P. fower want way—corner 1657 St.P. fower wants 1661 Ct.Bk. E.R.O D/DU. 158/1 Two Fields four wants 1782 Map.
Passim in Essex Rev. 1918–23.
So is this form with a a relatively recent development? Just some kind of aberrant mispronunciation by Essex Person? After all, as we saw above, the earliest examples, from two Essex place names, have e: Pondwente, Vernevente. But only a few years later in 1248 The Place-Names of Essex give us a decided a-form in the name of Walter de Wauntz, where the original a has undergone a change to au, suggesting that it was well established by then. And we have several other Middle English want examples, in one case showing how old the four-want compound is:
1332 in Reaney Dictionary of British Surnames 370: James atte Wante.
1447 in The Place-Names of Hertfordshire, eds. J. E. B. Gover, A. Mawer and F. M. Stenton, EPN Soc. 15 (1938) 260: Fourewantcros.
1463 in The Place-Names of Essex, ed. P. H. Reaney, EPN Soc. 12 (1935) 593: The Smyth Wante.
There is even a literary example, in the extended meaning ‘a way of accomplishing some end, plan of action, means; a device, contrivance, trick’:
c1400 (?a1300) King Alexander (MS Laud Misc 622) 1687: Of Alisaunder he heldeþ prys, And [by] hire aldre radd and want A lettre hym is ysant.
This manuscript was written in Essex.
So it begins to look as if the form want is very old, and probably goes back to Old English. Remember that the ancient form of the verb wend was wandjan. It is an established fact that in most Old English dialects, a became e before a nasal consonant with an i- or j-sound (the sound of y in yes) following: hence many modern English words like wend, bend, fen, hen, etc. But in Essex this ‘raising’ failed, so that in later English a appears instead of e. A very notable example of this is the universal older name of Fanchurch Street in London, normalized only in relatively recent times. (The city of London was originally in Essex.)
These ‘four wants’ and ‘four-want-ways’, therefore, are likely to preserve a very ancient dialect form specific to the people of Essex, Middlesex, and Hertfordshire.