The Grammarphobia Blog

How “sooner” came to mean “rather”

Q: I used “sooner” in the sense of “rather” the other day, and it suddenly struck me as an odd choice of words. Is this meaning somehow related to the phrase “sooner rather than later”? Any insight into the origin of this usage will be gratefully received.

A: Why, you ask, do we use the word “sooner” in a sentence like “Elizabeth would sooner be an old maid than marry Mr. Collins”?

Let’s begin with the adverb “soon,” which entered English around 825 with the same principal meaning that it has now: in a short time, before long, quickly.

The word, spelled sona in Old English, was related to similar words in Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Old High German, and other Germanic languages, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The comparative form “sooner” showed up in the early 13th century in the sense of “within a shorter time; more quickly; with less delay; at an earlier time or date.”

At about the same time, the OED says, “sooner” (chiefly in the phrase “sooner than”) took on the sense of “more readily or easily.”

Eventually, in the mid-15th century, this meaning gave us the one that struck you as odd: “More readily as a matter of choice; preferably, rather.”

Here’s an example from Fielding’s novel Tom Jones (1749): “I wou’d sooner swopp her to a Tobacco plantation.”

And here’s one from Trollope’s novel Can You Forgive Her? (1864): “I’d sooner it should be you than me; that’s all I can say.”

We don’t see any connection between this sense of “sooner” and the temporal expression “sooner rather than later,” which apparently arrived on the scene a lot later.

The earliest example of the expression in a recent Google search is from the April 2, 1869, issue of a Scottish newspaper, the Glasgow Herald:

“The man who has only himself to please finds soon or late, and probably sooner rather than later, that he has got a very hard master.”

The expression “sooner or later” (meaning at some time or other) is much older, dating from the 16th century, according to published references in the OED.

The earliest citation is from a 1577 translation of a Latin book on farming: “The stones, stickes, and suche baggage … are to be throwen out sooner or later.”  

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