The Grammarphobia Blog

The nowness of “right now”

Q: Whence cometh “right now”?  Our newscasters in Detroit use it all the time and this drives me batty. What’s wrong with just plain old “now”? Any light you can shed would be appreciated.

A: Just about any usage can get on one’s nerves if used too much, but we don’t believe “right” is redundant in the adverbial phrase “right now.”

Here the adverb “right” is an intensifier that emphasizes the nowness—the sense of being in the present—of the adverb “now.”

In fact, the word “right” has been used for emphasis since the earliest days of Old English, the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons.

It’s used in the sense of “exactly” or “precisely” to modify such words as “now,” “then,” “here,” and “there,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the early days, the OED says, the adverb “right” was used as both a “premodifier” (as in “right anon,” “right now,” or “right then”) and a “postmodifier” (as in “anon-right,” “now right,” or “here-right”).   

As it turns out, the word “right” follows “now” in the dictionary’s earliest example of the usage you’re asking about.

In The Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated manuscript that may date from as early as the year 700, the phrase is written as nu reht in Old English.

In case you’re interested, the ultimate source of the word “right” is the Indo-European base reg- (to move in a straight line), according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

That same prehistoric Indo-European root has given English, via Latin, such words as “regal,” “royal,” “rectangle,” “rectify,” “rectitude,” and “rectum.”

Yes, “rectum.” As Ayto explains, “rectum” is short for rectum intestinum or “straight intestine”—a term “contrasting the rectum with the convolutions of the remainder of the intestines.”

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