The Grammarphobia Blog

A matter of course

Q: In texting me, my daughter used the phrase “of course” (spelling it “of coarse,” naturally), which got me to thinking. How is it that we use “course” to refer to something in a positive manner (as in “of course”) as well as to a path, a route, or a plan—from a “concourse” to an “obstacle course” to a “course of study”?

A: The phrase “of course” means something akin to “naturally” or “it goes without saying.” When we say something occurred “of course,” we mean it was only to be expected, or that it was in the normal course of events.

And that last phrase, “in the normal course of events,” is a clue to the etymology of the phrase “of course.”

Our word “course” came into English in the late 13th century, and for several hundred years it was spelled without an “e” at the end, like the French word it came from (cours).

The French got it from Latin, in which cursus means a race, a journey, a march, or a direction. The Latin noun comes from the verb currere, to run.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that a wide range of English words is derived from currere, including “current,” “courier,” and “occur.”

In English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the noun “course” originally meant an onward movement in a particular path, or the action of running or moving onward.

Consequently, “course” has long been used to mean a customary or habitual succession of things, or a part of such a series.

It has also been used for hundreds of years to mean the place or time where the series has its “run,” as well as the natural order or the ordinary manner of proceeding.

This notion—of a habitual path or a prescribed series of things—explains a great many uses of “course” in English.

To mention a few, it explains why the parts of a meal are “courses,” why a flowing stream is a “watercourse,” why a normal event happens “in due course,” why an orderly ship maintains a certain “course,” why we let nature or the law “take its course,” and why colleges offer “courses” of study and doctors prescribe “courses” of treatment.

It also explains how “racecourse” and “golf course” got their names. And it explains why women in the 16th through the 19th centuries called their menstrual periods their “courses.”

The phrase we’re getting to, “of course,” came along in the mid-16th century, according to citations in the OED.

In the early 1540s it was used both as an adjective to mean “natural” or  “to be expected” (as in the phrase “a matter of course”) and as an adverb to mean “ordinarily” or “as an everyday occurrence” (as in “the cake was of course homemade”).

By the early 19th century, “of course” was being used to qualify entire sentences or clauses, according to OED citations.  And that’s how we generally use it today.

Oxford’s earliest example of this usage is from John Dunn Hunter’s Memoirs of a Captivity Among the Indians of North America (1823):

“She made some very particular inquiries about my people, which, of course, I was unable to answer.”

This later example is from a bit of dialogue in Charles Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist (1838): “ ‘You will tell her I am here?’ … ‘Of course.’ ”

We now take the phrase “of course” for granted, but it had some competition over the centuries.

It’s proved more durable than several variants with the same meaning—“upon course,” which was first recorded in this sense in 1619, “on course” (1677), and “in course” (1722).

In other words, its survival was not necessarily a matter of course.

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