The Grammarphobia Blog

Sign language

Q: Why is the OPEN sign in shop windows in the present tense, while the CLOSED sign is in the past? Why not OPENED and CLOSED?

A: The word “open” in this sense is an adjective, not a verb, and the word “closed” here is a participial adjective. So, technically, neither one is being used as a verb in the past or present tense.

In fact, the adjective “open” entered English before the verb, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, which describes the verb as “a derivative of the adjective.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the Old English version of “open” first appeared around 725 in the epic poem Beowulf, but Ayto notes that its roots are even more ancient.

Ayto says the adjective ultimately comes from a prehistoric Germanic word, upanaz, which he describes as “an adjective based on the ancestor of up, and therefore presumably denoted originally the raising of a lid or cover.”

The verb “close” (source of the past participle “closed”) is a relative newbie. We got it in the 13th century from Old French, where close was the present subjunctive of the verb clore (to shut), according to Chambers.

In modern French, the Oxford English Dictionary points out, the verb “clore is of little importance, having been almost superseded by fermer.”

“In English, on the other hand,” the OED notes, “close and its accompanying adj. and nouns have become great and important words, developing whole groups of senses unknown to French.”

Speaking of that accompanying adjective, can we say that a closed store is close? Only if it’s nearby (a sense of the word that developed around 1500).

One last point before we close: our verb “close” is a distant relative of the Latin clavis (key), which has given us “clavichord,” and the Latin clavus (nail), which has given us “clove,” the spice.

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