English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

Oneself or one’s self?

Q: Dorothy Sayers repeatedly uses “one’s self” in the sense of “oneself” in her 1935 mystery Gaudy Night. Is the two-word version British? Which usage came first?

A: The usual term now in both the US and the UK is “oneself,” though a few standard dictionaries include “one’s self” as a less common variant.

The original form, however, was an early version of “one’s self” that first appeared in English writing in 16th century. In the two earliest citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, “one” is in the genitive case, a form that indicates possession or other close relationships:

“For a suretie, the myschefe of louynge [loving] of ones selfe, is a noyeng or hurtynge pestylence” (from The Comedye of Acolastus, John Palsgrave’s 1540 translation of a Latin play by the Dutch Protestant writer Wilhelm Gnapheus, based on the Parable of the Prodigal Son).

“To exalt ones selfe aboue other men” (from The Sum of Diuinitie Drawn Out of the Holy Scripture, Robert Hutten’s 1548 translation of a treatise by the German theologian Johann Spangenberg).

The earliest OED example with the modern spelling is from the late 18th century: “The earth holds nothing comparable for deadness of weight, with a poor soul really in love—except when it happens to be with oneself!” (Fanny Burney’s novel Camilla, 1796).

And here’s the dictionary’s most recent citation, which we’ve expanded: “In [Marshall] Goldsmith’s opinion, the development of a better reputation was akin to the development of better muscle tone—not conceptually complicated,  just a matter of applying oneself and getting on with it” (The New Yorker, April 22, 2002).

Though “oneself” is the usual form now, the two-word variant still crops up, especially when a writer wants to emphasize the essential being that distinguishes one person from another.

That may be the intention in the title of this 2017 book by Paul Meeham: The Ghost of One’s Self: Doppelgangers in Mystery, Horror and Science Fiction Films.

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