Q: A recent headline caught my eye: “Obama Favors Gay Marriage.” Can a person “favor” something without being partial to it? For example, “Obama favors gay marriage over straight marriage.”
A: To “favor” something isn’t necessarily to prefer it over something else, though the word can have that meaning. In the case of that headline, the verb simply means to approve of or sanction.
The word “favor” has been a flexible addition to English since it showed up more than 700 years ago.
The noun “favor” arrived before the verb, and was first recorded around 1300, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
It came into Middle English from Old French, but ultimately comes from the Latin verb favere, defined by the OED as “to regard with goodwill, side with, show kindness to, protect.”
Originally, the noun “favor” meant good will or friendly regard, but very soon it also came to mean patronage, approval, partiality, support, kindness, and the like. (This is how a “favor” came to mean an act of kindness.)
The verb “favor” came along in the mid-1300s, and in early usage it had three related senses (we’ll quote the OED definitions):
(1) “To regard with favour, look kindly upon; to be inclined to, have a liking or preference for; to approve.”
(2) “To show favour to; to treat kindly; to countenance, encourage, patronize.”
(3) “To treat with partiality. Also, to side with, take the part of.”
All of those 14th-century usages are still with us today.
As you can see, “favor,” like its Latin ancestor, is a wide-ranging verb. It can mean to take sides, but it can simply mean to approve.
For instance, when you say you “favor” a certain political party, you mean you prefer it over the other. But when you say you “favor” an idea, you mean you approve of it or regard it in a positive light.
This latter sense of the word—simple approval—is what that headline writer meant to convey. In other words, President Obama sanctions gay marriage; he doesn’t prefer it over the heterosexual variety.
This discussion gives us a chance to favor a phrase that’s the result of a misunderstanding: “to curry favor.”
The expression, says the OED, is in fact a corruption of an old 15th-century phrase, “to curry favel,” which meant to use insincere flattery to gain advantage.
(On a more literal level, to “curry” means to prepare or make ready, and “favel” is a defunct noun that once meant cunning or duplicity.)
Sometime in the 16th century, people began substituting “to curry favor,” probably because “favor” was a better-known word and the two versions have kindred meanings.
In case you’re wondering, this sense of “curry” is unrelated to the curry in Indian, Pakistani, and other Asian cuisines. This spicy “curry” is derived from kari, a Tamil word for sauce or relish for rice, according to the OED.
By the way, we’ve written on our blog about another meaning of the verb “favor,” as when we say someone “favors” an injured leg or a sore foot. Here, to “favor” means to go easy on or to treat gently.
Check out our books about the English language