The Grammarphobia Blog

When “for sale” isn’t “on sale”

Q: I am wondering why everything being sold is “for sale,” but only promoted items with special pricing are “on sale.” Can you help?

A: We’ve often wondered about this ourselves. As all shoppers know, everything that’s “on sale” is “for sale.” But the reverse isn’t necessarily true. How did this come about?

The explanation requires a detour into etymological history.

The noun “sale” first appeared in late Old English writing around 1050, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It has ancient Germanic roots, and probably came into English by way of Old Norse.

It’s always meant more or less the same thing—the disposal of a commodity for a price. Here’s the OED definition:

“The action or an act of selling or making over to another for a price; the exchange of a commodity for money or other valuable consideration.”

Oxford’s citations include this one from a will written in 1411: “Þ’ forseyd sale of my londes and tenementes.” (“Th’ foresaid sale of my lands and holdings.”)

The phrase “for sale,” which dates back to Elizabethan times, has always meant “intended to be sold” or “with a view to selling,” according to citations in the OED.

The earliest example given in Oxford is from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (circa 1611): “The other is not a thing for sale.”

This later example is from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Our Old Home: A Series of English Sketches (1863): “We went into a bookseller’s shop to inquire if he had any description of Boston for sale.”

Another phrase that’s just as old, “on (or upon) sale,” has meant the same thing as “for sale.” We’ll quote a pair of the OED’s modern English examples:

“A book which has been upon sale ever since it was published, twelve years ago” (from Robert Southey’s The Life and Works of William Cowper, 1835).

“The Times is on Sale for 3d. per Copy at all railway bookstalls in England and Wales” (from a 1901 issue of the Times, London).

So far so good. For hundreds of years, the noun “sale” and the phrases “on sale” and “for sale” were pretty straightforward.

But in the hubbub of the mid-19th century marketplace, as department stores began to flourish, “sale” took on another meaning—the selling of something at a discount.

Here’s the OED definition: “A special disposal of shop goods at rates lower than those usually charged in order to get rid of them rapidly, e.g. at the end of a ‘season.’ ”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an advertisement that ran in an 1866 issue of Chambers’s Journal:

“Enormous and incredible sale … for ten days only!!!” (As you can see, hyperbole and multiple exclamation marks are nothing new in advertising.)

Lady Laura Troubridge used “sale” this way in an 1875 entry in her journal, published in Life Amongst the Troubridges (1966):

“We … found a vague little shop where a sale was going on and everything was too ridiculously cheap. We bought some little silk scarves for a penny three farthings each.”

Standard dictionaries, as well as the OED, recognize that in modern English, a “sale” is a two-edged proposition. It means a disposal of goods, either at or below the usual price.

So things were becoming confused even before the phrase “on sale” took on a new sense: available for purchase at a discount.

The OED has no entries for this newer meaning of “on sale,” but standard dictionaries have taken notice of it.

Both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) say “for sale” has only one meaning (available for purchase), but “on sale” has two (available for purchase or available at a discount).

Shoppers, of course, are good at translating the language of ads, so they’re aware of the difference. And as we all know, even a discounted “sale price” isn’t always a bargain.

(“Bargain,” by the way, has been around since Middle English and can be traced to the Old French verb bargaignier, “to haggle.”)

We can’t sign off without mentioning that the original meaning of “sell” was to give—a meaning that, needless to say, is now defunct! It was recorded that way in Beowulf, which probably dates to the mid-700s.

In the late 10th century, “sell” acquired another meaning—to give up or hand over someone to an enemy. This usage is still with us, generally in the verb phrase “sell out,” which developed in the 19th century.

The most common meaning of “sell,” to hand over something for a price, was first recorded around the year 1000.

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