The Grammarphobia Blog

Store gazing

Q: I am curious about the expression “to put store by.” I think I understand the gist of the meaning: to believe in or count on. Am I correct? And how do those words come together to create this expression?

A: The more familiar forms of the expression are “set store by” or “set store on.” Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines “set store by” as meaning to value highly. Here’s how it came about.

In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the noun “store” (sometimes pluralized as “stores”) meant one’s goods or possessions or money laid up for future use.

Around the same time, this sense of “store” as goods held in reserve for the future gave us another usage: something that lies ahead was said to be “in store” for us.

Later in the 14th century, according to the OED, the word meant a treasure or something precious. Thus it came to be used in phrases having the sense of to value or to prize.

So to value something highly was to “set (great) store by” or to “put (or set) store upon.” Similarly, to “set something at little store” was to devalue it.

Here’s the phrase in action, in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847): “He set store on her past everything.”

The sense of a “store” as a place where goods are sold (more an American usage than a British one) didn’t come into being until the middle of the 18th century.

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.