Q: I was listening to a Churchill biography in which someone older says Winston wants discipline. In fact, that’s the last thing he wanted. But the context suggests that “wants” here means both “lacks” and “needs.” Is this a British usage?
A: We think so, and so do two of the UK dictionaries we checked (Collins and Macmillan), which describe it as “mainly British.”
Collins, for example, gives this example of the British usage: “your shoes want cleaning.”
However, all the US dictionaries we consulted include, without qualification, “need” and “lack” among the definitions of the verb “want”—that is, they consider those meanings standard American English.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives this example: “the motor wants a tune-up.”
And The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) gives this one: “ ‘Your hair wants cutting,’ said the Hatter” (Lewis Carroll).
Of course that American Heritage example is from a British writer. And we see the “need” and “lack” senses of “want” a lot more in British writing than in American.
In fact, all but one of the 14 citations in the Oxford English Dictionary for the “lack” sense are from British writers. And all of the OED’s 21 citations for the “need” sense are British.
“Etymologically,” John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “to want something is to ‘lack’ it (a sense still intact in the noun want).”
As Ayto explains, the common contemporary sense of the verb (to desire to have or do something) “is a secondary extension” of the earlier “lack” usage.
He says English adopted “want” from vanta, an Old Norse verb meaning to lack, which in turn came from a prehistoric Germanic word reconstructed as wanaton (lacking).
The ultimate source of “want,” according to Ayto, is the prehistoric Indo-European root wan, which has also given English the verb “wane.”
The OED says the verb “want” entered English around 1200 with the “lack” sense, which the dictionary defines this way: “Not to have; to be without, to lack; to have too little of; to be destitute of, or deficient in; to fail to have, or get.”
Oxford’s earliest citation is from the Ormulum, a collection of Middle English homilies explaining biblical texts: “All thatt wannteth cristess hald / All sinnketh inn till helle.” (We’ve changed the runic letter thorn to “th.”)
The OED defines the “need” sense, which appeared in the late 1400s, this way: “To suffer the want of; to have occasion for, need, require; to stand in need of (something salutary, but often not desired).”
Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3 (circa 1591): “Oh welcome Oxford, for we want thy helpe.”
Although Americans sometimes say things like “The house wants cleaning,” they usually say “The house needs cleaning” or “The house needs to be cleaned.”
We wrote a post on the blog some time ago about a related regional usage in the US: “The house needs cleaned.”
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