Thursday, 19 December 2013

Presenting the word "present"

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 (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.

Both words have different original meanings but these days they are fairly interchangeable. We are indeed fortunate (or lucky!) to have such a rich and varied language as English. However, I doubt that many of us make conscious choices regarding the words we commonly use. But that is a whole new subject . . .


  1. Interesting stuff. Many English words have alternatives, which does make it a great language!

  2. No time like the present to learn new things!