There’s so much shopping and giving and receiving of presents – or gifts – at Christmas that it makes you wonder why English uses both these words. Lately, I've been making use of thesaurus.com (we don't really need those huge reference books any longer, do we?) and found some really interesting musings on word origins.
Personally, I wouldn't say,"I have to wrap up the Christmas gifts now" – would you? But I might say, "That was a beautiful gift." Somehow the word "gift" conjures up the image of something formal or gracious, whereas the word "present" seems to have a more general meaning.
Why then do we have two words in common usage? "Gift" is an Old English word that only arrived at its current definition: "something given voluntarily without payment in return, as to show favour toward someone, honour an occasion, or make a gesture of assistance" in the 1930s. Prior to that, it denoted payment for a wife and was used in connection with dowries!
Unsurprisingly, "present" is associated with the present moment. Originating from Old Norman or Old French, it bore the same meaning as the adjective "present" – being there – and was used, as in the French phrase "mettre en present" to convey the sense of "offering something in the presence of". It was not until the 1500s that the word "present" began to signify the object being offered.