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Way down yonder in etymology

Q: I’ve always used the expression “away too much,” as in “I ate away too much potato salad.” Whenever I heard people say “way too much,” I assumed they were contracting it incorrectly. Today, someone told me I was wrong. This is upsetting, given that I’m a writer. What’s your take on it?

A: Sorry, but you are wrong. The common expression is “way too much.”

Here the word “way” plays the role of adverb, a usage that once irritated early 20th-century commentators. But the adverbial use of “way” is several hundred years old, and nobody has objected lately.

Using the adverb “away” instead is way too fastidious. In fact, I’d call it an example of hypercorrectness (something I’ve written a blog entry about). But a little confusion is natural when dealing with “way” and “away.” These two words are so intimately connected etymologically that way back in history it was hard to tell them apart.

In simple terms, the adverb “away” started out as a long form of the noun “way.” And when “way” was used later as an adverb, it was a short form of “away.” By the way, we’re talking here about very old words.

“Way,” a noun recorded as early as the 700s, was weg in Old English, and it meant a road, path, or course of travel. It has roots in a prehistoric Germanic word, wegaz, which is descended from an ancient Indo-European root, wegh.

“Away” was originally a phrase, “on way,” which was written in Old English as on weg or a-weg. In later times, during the 900s, it became a single word. The original sense of the term, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, was “on one’s way” or “to another place.”

When people began using “way” as an adverb in the early 1200s, it was an aphetic form of “away.” This is a fancy way of saying that “way” resulted from the loss of a short, unaccented vowel. (Other aphetic forms include “lone,” from “alone,” and “cute,” from “acute.”)

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest recorded citation for this short form of “away” is from a Middle English poem (circa 1205) that has the phrase wei weorpen, meaning “cast away.”

Other citations of “way” as an adverb include “do way” (for “do away,” circa 1300 and onward); “The Kyng is way at Eltham” (1460); “carye hym waye” (for “carry him away,” 1533); and “Gae wa’,” (for “go away,” 1818).

In the 19th century, “’way” was also used for “away” in the sense of a great distance: “way towards Tupper’s Lake” (1849); “He sat ’way under the mantle” (1888); “way below cost” (1890); “mere specks, ’way down the road” (1927), and so on. (Note that some writers used an apostrophe to show the “a” had been dropped from “away.”)

In addition, since the 19th century both “away” and “way” have been used as adverbs to add emphasis. These usages are heard chiefly in the US, the OED notes, though it includes some British citations.

Here are some “away” citations: “away up in Canada” (1818); “away down east” (1825); “away back in 1840” (1882); “away up in price” (1903); “away behind” (1906); “I’m away wrong” (1910); and “away down in the list” (1858).

And here are some “way” citations: “way over yonder” (1850); “way down south” (1851); “way down East” (1854); “’way down amongst the roots” (1866); and “sick of it way through” (1908).

Finally, we come to the usage you’re talking about, and here’s where “way” and “away” part company. This is the adverbial use of “way” to mean “much” or “far.”

The OED labels this as an American usage, and it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. Citations include “way too much for ordinary folks” (1941), “arrive way sooner” (1957), and “drank way too much” (1977).

Both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) also recognize this meaning for “way,” as in “way too expensive.”

Merriam-Webster’s mentions it without reservation, while the more conservative American Heritage labels it informal.

However, the OED has no entries for “away” used in this manner (meaning “much” or “far”), and neither do standard American dictionaries.

In case you’re wondering, there’s another adverbial use of “way,” meaning “extremely” or “very.” The OED labels this usage slang, as in “way fun” (1987) or “way cool” (1988).

American Heritage also calls this slang, while Merriam-Webster’s lists it without comment.

Is Merriam-Webster’s way too precipitous? Perhaps, but not away too precipitous.

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