The Grammarphobia Blog

A case in point

Q: I am gradually becoming obsessed with the phrase “a case in point.” Does anyone know its origin? It looks like a clumsy translation from another language (French, perhaps) but is it?

A: You’re onto something. The phrase at the heart of your obsession, “in point,” does indeed come from French—or, rather, Anglo-Norman, a dialect of Old French used by England’s Norman conquerors.

In the Anglo-Norman phrase en point, the word point refers to a state or condition, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the word “point” showed up in English in the early 1200s with the sense of a condition, state, situation, or plight, though that meaning is now considered historic.

In the early 1600s, according to Oxford, “point” took on another sense—appropriate or pertinent—a sense that’s now chiefly seen in the expression “case in point,” meaning an example that illustrates the point.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the expression is from Money and the Mechanism of Exchange (1875) by William Stanley Jevons:

“The wampumpeag of the North American Indians is a case in point, as it certainly served as jewellery.”

The most recent citation is from the January 1996 issue of Scientific American:

Much of the ecological evidence about sex is open to sharply differing interpretations. A case in point concerns the ‘haplodipoid’ sex-determining system of ants, bees and wasps.”

And with that, we’ll buzz off.

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