I used to like etymology

October 29, 2007 at 12:43 pm | Posted in words | 3 Comments

How did the phrase “used to <verb>” come to mean “did <verb> in the past on a regular basis”?  It makes no sense with any of the meanings of the work “used” that I know of. 



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  1. OK, so I know you are just stirring the pot, and this is one of those, “perspecitve” things where things always look different from diffent angles/people, but to me, “used to” as did, makes some sense.

    Use: (from dictionary.com)
    1. to employ for some purpose; put into service; make use of: to use a knife.
    2. to avail oneself of; apply to one’s own purposes: to use the facilities.

    So Use: I do employ for some purpose/do avial myself of.

    Used to: I did employ for some purpose/did avail myself of.

    Do/Did. Use/Used.

    Capiche? Or for a more recent reference, Savvy? NOw where did those words come from? *Grin*

  2. I still don’t get it.

    “In my college days, I used to drink more heavily.”

    “In my college days, I did drink more heavily.”

    “In my college days, I drank more heavily.”

    What meaning of “use/used” makes these three sentences have essentially the same meaning?

  3. I think I might see it now. How’s this?

    The sentence:

    “In my college days, I used to drink more heavily.”

    is short for,

    “In my college days, I used (my ability to do things) to drink more heavily.”


    “In my college days, I used (my capacity/potential/faculties/resources) to drink more heavily.”

    The idea being this — if I “did drink,” means that I “used to drink,” then I must have used something to drink, if I am going to reconcile the common use of “use” with this use of the phrase “used to (verb).”

    So what did I “use” in order to do that thing? My ability to do stuff. Therefore, “I used to drink,” is short for “I used my ability to do stuff to drink.”

    If you don’t like “(possessive pronoun) ability to do stuff,” substitute a synonym for “ability,” such as capacity, or faculties, or power, or choice, or autonomy.

    That’s the best I’ve got. It makes sense to me. Whether or not it is this meaning which gave rise to the contemporary use of the phrase, “used to (verb),” is another story. But it’s my story, and I’m sticking to it until I am aware of evidence to the contrary. It is one of my working hypotheses, and really all the things I “know” are just working hypotheses. Just ask T-Rex.

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