The Grammarphobia Blog

Getting used to it

Q: How did the word “used” come to mean utilized, accustomed, and pre-owned? And why does the second one jangle my sensibilities?

A: Let’s begin with the word “use,” which showed up in English as a verb and a noun in the Middle Ages. The noun ultimately come from the Latin ūsus (a use, custom, skill, habit, or experience), and the verb comes from ūtī (to use) and the past-participle ūsus (used).

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that those Latin ancestors have given English such words as “utensil,” “utility,” “utilize,” “usage,” “usual,” “usury,” “abuse” (etymologically, “misuse”), and “peruse” (“use thoroughly”).

The English verb meant “to utilize or employ for a purpose” when it first appeared in Layamon’s Brut, a Middle English poem written sometime before 1200, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Chambers doesn’t give a citation, but here’s an example from the poem: “Hii vsede þat craft to lokie in þan lufte; þe craft his ihote astronomie” (“They used that craft to look in the sky; the craft they named astronomy”).

When the noun “use” showed up around the same time in Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that’s believed to date from sometime before 1200, it meant the “act of utilizing or employing a thing.”

Again, Chambers doesn’t give a citation, but here’s an example from the monastic guide: “Þis word habbeð muchel on us” (“You have much use of this word”).

We won’t get into all the various senses of the noun and verb “use” here. Instead, we’ll stick to the three meanings of “used” that you’re asking about: (1) utilized, (2) accustomed, and (3) secondhand.

We’ve already discussed #1, the original meaning of the verb in Middle English. This is still the primary sense of the verb.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, lists this sense first: “To put into service or employ for a purpose: I used a whisk to beat the eggs. The song uses only three chords.”

The “accustomed” meaning of the verb first appeared in the Middle Ages, reflecting the “custom,” “habit,” or “experience” sense of the Latin ūsus. The verb was originally accompanied by a preposition, usually “in” or “to,” but occasionally “of” or “till.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has this early “in” example from the South English Legendary (circa 1300), a collection of lives, or stories, of saints and other church figures:

“In penance he was so wel yused” (“He was so well used to penance”). The passage is from the “Life of St. Edmund of Abingdon.”

And here’s an early “to” citation from the same story: “So longe hi hem vsede þerto” (“So long she used them thereto”). The “to” here is part of þerto. The citation refers to Edmund’s mother, who accustomed her children to a life of Christian devotion and austerity.

In the late 1300s, the OED says, writers began using the “used to” construction to describe a past action that “was formerly habitual but has been discontinued.”

The first example given is from John Trevisa’s translation, dated sometime before 1387, of Polychronicon, a history written in Latin in the mid-1300s by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden: “Englische men used for to goo into abbayes of Fraunce.”

The latest Oxford citation is from the Nov. 18, 2012, issue of the Daily Telegraph (London): “I used to go to yoga, Pilates and circuit training and have given all those up.”

The “did use to” construction showed up in the early 17th century to describe such a habitual past action.

The dictionary’s first example is from a 1624 religious tract by James Ussher, a Church of Ireland archbishop and later primate: “In whose language … the Church also did use to speake.”

In the late 19th century, writers began using “used to” passively to describe being familiar or comfortable with something—that is, accustomed to it.

The earliest OED example is from an essay by Edward Gibbon, published posthumously in 1796, referring to those “who are used to the laboured happiness of all Horace’s expressions.”

This more recent citation is from “If You See Her, Say Hello,” a 1975 song by Bob Dylan: “And I’ve never gotten used to it, I’ve just learned to turn it off.”

Why, you ask, does this usage jangle your sensibilities? We don’t know. It doesn’t jangle ours. But perhaps, like Dylan, you haven’t gotten used to it.

As for the adjective “used” (technically, a participial adjective), it took on its “secondhand” sense in the late 19th century. The first Oxford example is from an ad in the Sept. 30, 1874, issue of the Chicago Tribune: “New and used furniture.”

And as geezers ourselves, we enjoyed this citation from Pompey, a 1993 novel by Jonathan Meades: “You tell me the name of the geezer who’ll buy a used pacemaker with fifteen thou on the clock.”

If you’d like to read more, we ran a post in 2013 about “used” and “pre-owned.”

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