The Grammarphobia Blog

Why do we favor a sore foot?

Q: Please enlighten me about this sentence: “He is favoring his left leg.” Does this mean the person in question is depending more on his left leg (presumably because his right one is injured)? Or does it mean he is giving special protective treatment to the left leg because it is the injured one?

A: “Favoring” one leg means treating it gently—that is, using it less than the other.

This use of the verb “favor” was first recorded in English in 1526, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED defines this sense of the word as “to deal gently with; to avoid overtasking (a limb); to ease, save, spare.”

Not surprisingly, many citations for this usage come from books on horsemanship.

The OED includes an early example from Gervase Markham’s Cavelarice, or the English Horseman (1607): “When a horse doth stand but firme upon … three feete … favoring the other.”

Late in the following century, William Augustus Osbaldiston wrote in The British Sportsman (1792): “He will set his foot on the ground warily, and endeavour to favor it.”

And here’s a human example. Samuel Pepys, who experienced severe pain while reading and writing, wrote in a 1668 diary entry about “walking in the dark in the garden, to favour my eyes.”

This sense of “favor” is perhaps a natural extension of the word’s original meaning.

When “favor” first entered English in the 1300s, the OED says, it generally meant to regard with favor or show favor to; to look kindly upon or to treat kindly; to have a liking or preference for; to encourage or patronize; to treat with partiality, and so on.

It’s not surprising that one—whether equine or human—should want to deal kindly with sore feet and sore eyes!

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