Q: Any idea where the “get along famously” phrase originated? I like to use it as much as I can, but sadly I have the feeling that most people don’t know what I mean when I say it these days.
A: When the adverb “famously” showed up in English in the 16th century, it meant in a famous (that is, a widely known) manner, a sense that fell out of favor in the 19th century but had a revival in the 20th century.
The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1579 religious tract by the Puritan theologian William Fulke: “Rome doeth set foorth the merites of Peter and Paule the more famously and solemnly.”
And here’s a more famous example from Shakespeare’s historical play Richard III (1597): “This land was famously enricht / With pollitike graue counsell.”
The OED doesn’t have any 20th-century examples of this sense, but here’s one from the Nov. 23, 2014, issue of the New York Times: “New Yorkers, both in lore and reality, can be hard to please, and famously outspoken about their grievances.”
The first Oxford citation for “famously” used in your sense of the word—to mean excellently or splendidly—is almost as old as the original meaning.
It comes from Coriolanus, a tragedy that Shakespeare wrote in the early 1600s: “I say vnto you what he hath done Famouslie, he did it to that end.”
The only Oxford example of “famously” used in a phrase similar to the one you’re asking about (“get along famously”) is from Edward Bannerman Ramsay’s Reminiscences of Scottish Life & Character (1858): “We get on famously.”
However, we’ve found a couple of earlier examples in Google Books, including this one from Strathern, an 1844 novel by Marguerite Blessington (the Countess of Blessington):
“The postboys get along famously. I had no notion that these cursed Italians, or their horses either, could go at such a pace.”
And, finally, here’s an example from The Watchman, an 1855 novel by James A. Maitland:
“George Hartley is getting along famously at Messrs. Wilson and Co.’s, and for two years past has been the managing clerk of the concern, with a salary of two thousand five hundred dollars a-year.”