English English language Etymology Expression Usage

Death, the great intensifier

Q: I find the death imagery in a sentence like “I love her to death” to be inappropriate and grotesque. I’d be thrilled (though not to death) if you would write something about this on the blog.

A: We’re sorry to disappoint you, but you won’t be thrilled by our answer. We don’t find the usage inappropriate or grotesque.

In fact, it has a long history, going back to the 1300s, though it’s often used negatively, not positively as in your example.

We’ve checked a half-dozen standard dictionaries and all of them list the use of “to death” in this sense as standard English for excessively or extremely.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the phrase “to death” (or “to dead”) has been used since the Middle Ages to intensify verbs of feeling or adjectives.

The OED defines the phrase in this sense as “to the last extremity, to the uttermost, to the point of physical or nervous exhaustion, beyond endurance.”

The dictionary’s earliest written example is from Cursor Mundi, a Middle English poem written sometime before 1400: “Herodias him hated to ded.”

And here’s an example from John Dryden’s 1672 play The Conquest of Granada: “I’m sad to death, that I must be your Foe.”

The common verbal phrase “to do something to death” showed up in Victorian times, according to published references in the OED.

Oxford’s earliest written example is from Recaptured Rhymes (1882), a collection of verse from the Saturday Review by the British writer Henry Duff Traill: “I am also called Played-out and Done-to-death, / And It-will-wash-no-more.”

The most recent citation is from an April 16, 1965, article in the New Statesman that describes a tune as “mercilessly done to death by countless performers.”

Although all the OED citations for the intensifier use it in a negative sense, we often see “to death” used positively and see nothing wrong with using the phrase for doing something intensely positive—like loving someone to death!

In case you’re wondering, the word “death” first showed up in Old English around 725 in Beowulf, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

It ultimately comes from reconstructed Proto-Germanic and Indo-European words for the act of dying.

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