The Grammarphobia Blog

Is the present a gift?

Q: A friend posted this on Facebook: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a GIFT. That’s why they call it the present.” Is there a connection between “the present” and “a present”?

A: That saying, which is often mistakenly attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, A. A. Milne, and others, is merely a play on words.

The “present” that means now and the “present” that means a gift are two separate nouns, though they have a common source.

Both of them originated in the notion of presence—of being at hand or on the spot. They can be traced to the Latin noun praesens (presence) and adjective praesentem (present or at hand, not absent).

In these Latin words we find the prefix prae- (before, in front of) and a participial form of the verb esse (be). So the original notion was of being before (in the presence of) a person or thing.

Derivatives of the Latin words came into English in the Middle Ages by way of Anglo-Norman and Old French.

And it was in Old French that the noun present first came to mean a gift, a sense that was passed along into English.

As John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “The use of the related word present for ‘gift’ originated in Old French in the concept of ‘bringing something into someone’s presence,’ and hence of giving it to them.”

The other sense of the noun “present”—the time at hand—was also influenced by French, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But it developed separately from the “gift” sense.

And the English adjective “present” is from French as well, in its usual senses related to place (here) and time (now).

It’s difficult to sort out which English words came first.

For example, the OED says the English adjective “present” was first recorded in writing in 1340, but that it may have influenced various noun usages, some of which were recorded more than a century earlier.

The etymology of these words helps explain why the English verb “present” has so many meanings.

The OED says that when first recorded, around 1300, to “present” meant “to bring or place (a person) before or into the presence of; to bring to the notice of another; to introduce, esp. formally or ceremonially; spec. to introduce at court or to society, or before a sovereign or other distinguished person.”

Today “present” can mean, among other things, to introduce someone or something (like a person, a product, a performer); to put before the public (a play, exhibition, etc.); to hold vertically in salute (as in the phrase “present arms”); or to lay before a court or other authority (as a lawyer offers documents to a judge).

That last meaning explains the use of the term “these presents” in legal language, a usage the OED says dates back to 1379. In the legal sense, “presents” means the  present documents, writings, words, or statements. (No, they’re not gift-wrapped.)

Here’s an example from the preamble to the Articles of Confederation (1781): “To all to whom these Presents shall come, we the undersigned Delegates of the States affixed to our Names send greeting.”

As you’ve probably gathered, the verb “present” is almost always transitive—that is, it has a direct object, the something that’s being presented.

But as we noted in a blog posting a few years ago, there’s an exception. In medicine, to “present” means to appear before a doctor. It’s one of the rare cases in which the verb is intransitive and doesn’t have an object.

The examples we used: “The patient presented in my office with symptoms of fibromyalgiaThe head of the fetus is presenting.

The OED has examples of this medical usage going back to 1719. So it may be odd, but it’s presentable.

As for that saying your friend posted on Facebook, it’s been cited in print in one form or another since at least the 1990s, and it may have originated in a Hallmark greeting card, according to the language sleuth Barry Popik.

In an entry on his Big Apple website, Popik traces the saying to an Aug. 31, 1994, installment of “The Family Circus,” a comic strip by Bill Keane: “Yesterday’s the past, tomorrow’s the future, but today is a GIFT. That’s why it’s called the present.”

Popik, who had help on his posting from the lexicographer Jonathan Lighter, says an earlier version of the saying that doesn’t connect the two senses of “present” appeared in the July 11, 1967, issue of the Altoona (PA) Mirror:

“You must forget the past. Yesterday is history, tomorrow’s a mystery. Follow the AA philosophy of quitting one day at a time and seeking divine guidance.”

A partial version of the saying showed up in the Aug. 2, 1993, issue of the Galveston (TX) Daily News, in a typo-ridden ad that suggested a greeting-card connection:

“Today is a gift, thats why its called the present
“MAINLAND FLORAL, INC.
“Hallmark.”

A citation from The Ten Habits of Naturally Slim People, a 1998 book by by Jill H. Podjasek with Jennifer Carney, also suggests a greeting-card origin of the saying:

“I read the following wisdom in a greeting card years ago: ‘Yesterday is history; tomorrow is mystery; today is a gift; that is why they call it the present.’ ”

If any readers of the blog have one of the greeting cards up in the attic, please send us a photo of it!

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