Q: I’m an American in Paris, where the main Xmas meal is very late on the 24th. I think it was originally supposed to keep you awake until Midnight Mass. In any case, that gives us all day on the 25th to digest. One thing I had trouble digesting during the last holiday was the use of the verb “gift,” as in “I plan to gift him an iPod.” What’s wrong with “give”? I hope you will indulge me by denouncing this usage, but I fear there are any number of acceptable examples going back millions of years. By the way, I have no problem with “regift.”
A: As you suspect, the verb “gift” is very old. It doesn’t go back millions of years, though, just to the 1500s!
Not surprisingly, the verb is adapted from the noun, which entered English around 1250, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. As for “gift” vs. “give,” the two words come from same Germanic source.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb “gift” as “to endow or furnish with gifts … [or] to endow, invest, or present with as a gift … [or] to bestow as a gift; to make a present of.”
The OED’s first citation for the verb is from an anonymous 16th-century English poem: “The friendes that were together met / He gyfted them richely with right good speede.”
The poem, which was probably published around 1550 to 1560, is entitled A Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife Lapped in Morel’s Skin for her Good Behaviour. (“Morel” is the name of a horse the husband kills for its skin. The horsehide is then rubbed in salt and wrapped around his wife to teach her good behavior. Yikes!)
Some scholars believe this long and very brutal poem about wifely submission, which was popular in its day, inspired Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
The OED’s citations for “gift” as a verb seem to peter out in the latter part of the 19th century. The most recent citations are from the 1870s and ’80s, as in this quote from The Abbey of Paisley, a history by J. Cameron Lees (1878): “The Regent Murray gifted all the Church Property to Lord Sempill.”
Today, this sense survives primarily in our participial adjective “gifted” (meaning something like talented). Example: “The Glasses are gifted children.”
But why is the old verb “gift” being revived? Your guess is as good as ours. We don’t care much for it but, like you, we’re rather fond of “regift.” This attitude may be inconsistent, but such is language.