English language Etymology Phrase origin Usage

At the end of the day

Q: The expression “at the end of the day” grates on my ears. I hear it constantly, even from my own lips. At the end of the day, it is what it is: too damn useful to ignore. Perhaps you could say a word about where it comes from and why it’s so prevalent.

A: As a matter of fact, we’ve mentioned “at the end of the day” on the blog a couple of times in discussions about expressions used to death in the media.

As we said in a posting in 2008, a survey in Britain found that “at the end of the day” was the most annoying cliché in the opinion of those polled.

It seems to have aced out its chief competitors in the
summing-up category, “in the final analysis” and “when all is said and done.”

However, we’ve never looked into the origins of this prepositional phrase, so here goes.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “at the end of the day” as a “hackneyed” expression meaning “eventually” or “when all’s said and done.”

The OED has several citations for the published use of the phrase, all dating from the 1970s and ’80s.

The earliest is from Henry McKeating’s book God and the Future (1974): “Eschatological language is useful because it is a convenient way of indicating … what at the end of the day we set most store by.” (The italics are McKeating’s.)

Oxford’s citations also include this one, from Bill Beaumont’s Thanks to Rugby (1982): “But, at the end of the day, it is an amateur sport and everyone is free to put as much or as little into the game as he chooses.”

However, we’ve googled several earlier citations, many from the 20th century but a few extending back into the 19th.

This passage comes from an autobiographical sketch written in 1889 by the scientist Thomas H. Huxley:

“The last thing that it would be proper for me to do would be to speak of the work of my life, or to say at the end of the day whether I think I have earned my wages or not. Men are said to be partial judges of themselves. Young men may be, I doubt if old men are.”

We wouldn’t describe this example of the usage as hackneyed. Huxley, who died in 1895, seems to be using the expression to sum up his life’s work.   

We also found a couple of examples from religious writings published earlier in the 19th century. In both of them, “at the end of the day” seems to be used figuratively in the sense of “when all is said and done,” though it’s possible that the authors may have been using it in a more literal way.

An essay entitled “An Interpretation of the Fourteenth Chapter of the Apocalypse,” published in an 1832 issue of The Morning Watch, a theological quarterly, includes this passage:

“And thus it is that Christ at the end of the day will have his own will in the church … and all the carnality and bondage which hath been in the church shall be proved to be not of him, but of Antichrist. … Ah me! how I long to see it.”

And this one comes from a sermon by the Rev. Ebenezer Erskine, published in 1826:

“Christ’s flock is but a little flock, comparatively considered. … They are but little in respect of their numbers. Indeed abstractly considered, at the end of the day, they will make an ‘innumerable company, which no man can number’; but, viewed in comparison of the wicked, they are but few.”

We’re sure that even earlier examples will come to light as old books and other documents are digitized.

Why is this expression so common today? We can’t say. But generally as phrases are used to death, they lose their novelty and new ones spring up to take their places. Perhaps the days are numbered for “at the end of the day.”

Check out our books about the English language