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The pilgrimage of ‘progress’

Q: In looking up “progress,” I stumbled across this note: “The verb became obsolete in British English use at the end of the 17th century and was readopted from American English in the early 19th century.” Why did it become obsolete in Britain, not the US?

A: The verb “progress” wasn’t actually obsolete in British English during the 18th century, but it was apparently less common in Britain than in the US.

That passage from the Oxford Dictionary of English is outdated. It’s probably based on an etymological note in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary that was updated in the online third edition.

(The ODE is a standard dictionary while the OED is an etymological dictionary. Both are published by Oxford University Press.)

Although the note in the OED second edition says the verb was “in 18th c. obs. in England,” the third edition (in a March 2022 update) says it was “apparently more common in U.S. than in British use in the 18th cent.”

Of the seven 18th-century citations in the updated entry, three are from Britain, three from the US, and one from Ireland. Here are the British examples in various senses of the verb:

  • “ ’Tis Ordain’d … that the Sun … should be more Certain in Motion, and usefully computable, by never progressing from his Ecliptick Line” (from Remarks on the New Philosophy of Des-Cartes, 1700, by Edward Howard).
  • “While England was progressing in that change of its constitution, Ireland as a dependent country was affected with it” (A View of the Internal Policy of Great Britain, 1764, by Robert Wallace).
  • “A glorious war, commenced in justice and progressed in success” (The Out-of-Door Parliament, 1780, by a Gentleman of the Middle Temple).

English borrowed the word “progress” from Latin, where progressus referred to a forward movement, an advance, or a development. It appeared as a noun in the 15th century and a verb in the 16th. Here are the first OED citations for the noun and the verb:

  • “In oure progresse to outward werkis aftir þese [these] now afore taken” (from The Reule of Crysten Religioun, circa 1443, by Reginald Pecock).
  • “Caesar returned out of Africke, and progressed vp and downe Italie” (from The Liues of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, 1578, Thomas North’s translation of the Greek historian Plutarch’s biographies).

The verb “progress” was used in the 16th and 17th centuries by leading British writers, including Shakespeare, Milton, and Donne. The OED cites this tearful example from Shakespeare’s King John, believed written in the mid-1590s but published in 1623:  “Let me wipe off this honourable dewe, / That siluerly doth progresse on thy cheekes.”

The verb continued to be used in American English during the 18th century, although it fell out of favor in British English. Noah Webster includes the noun and verb as standard in An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), while Samuel Johnson says in A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) that the verb is “not used.”

Johnson was aware of the verb’s history (he cites Shakespeare’s use of it in King John), but the mistaken belief among less informed Britons that the verb was an Americanism may have kept many from using it in the 18th century.

By the early 19th century, however, the reluctant British apparently found the verb so helpful that they resumed using it despite its supposed American origins.

The OED cites this example, which we’ve expanded, from Mary Russell Mitford’s Our Village (1832), a collection of sketches about rural life in England:

“In country towns, as in other places, society has been progressing (if I may borrow that expressive Americanism) at a very rapid rate.”

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