Etymology Usage

An appraising eye

Q: I just finished Origins of the Specious. My appraisal: Bravo!  I loved the way you ended each section with tongue in chic. Now, here’s my pet peeve: folks who use “appraised” when they mean “apprised,” as in, “Keep me appraised of the situation.”

A: Thanks for the kind words about Origins, our book about language myths. We’re glad you liked it. Pat has written about “appraise” versus “apprise” in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I. Here’s the passage:

APPRAISE/APPRISE. Appraise means ‘evaluate’ or ‘size up’; apprise means ‘inform.’ Sotheby’s apprised Mr. Big of the fact that his ‘Rembrandt’ was appraised as worthless.”

This you already know, of course. What you may not know is that while the two verbs are now very different, they were once intimately connected. 

“Appraise” developed in the 1300s, during the Middle English period. And it has had only one meaning: to evaluate or size up.

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the source of “appraise” was the verb “praise,” which like “prize” is derived from early French verbs meaning to attach value—or a valuation—to something.

In Middle English, both “praise” and “prize” meant not only to esteem or value highly but also to put a price on.   

“Apprise,” unlike “appraise,” has had two meanings in English.

The first, now archaic, also dates from Middle English and was related to the verb “prize.”

In those early days, “apprise” (like “prize” and “praise”) meant to value something—either to esteem it or establish its price. 

The second meaning of “apprise” (to inform), the sense that has survived to modern times, came into English in the 1600s from a very different French source.

This sense of the word is derived from apprendre (to learn, teach, or inform).

In the same way, English acquired “comprise” from comprendre (to comprehend) and “surprise” from  surprendre (to overtake).

The upshot is that today neither “prize” nor “apprise” (nor, for that matter, “praise”) has its old meaning of establishing a price.

For this purpose we have not only “appraise” but also—you guessed it—the verb “price,” which originated in the late 1400s as a variant of  the old “prize.”

As for the noun “price,” it originated in the 1200s with meanings similar to “honor,” “excellence,” “glory,” and the modern sense of “praise.” 

Small world, no?

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