Q: I teach EFL and was asked about the origin of using “there, there” to comfort someone. I was unable to find this online. Not one single iota as to where it came from. Can you help?
A: The word “there” has gone in many different directions since it first appeared in Anglo-Saxon days as þara, an adverb indicating location or position, as in this example from a medieval English version of a 5th-century Latin chronicle:
“swiðe earfoðhawe, ac hit is Þeah Þara” (“very hard to perceive, yet it is still there”). From the Old English Orosius, a late 9th- or early 10th-century translation of Paulus Orosius’s Historiarum Adversum Pagano Libri VII (“Seven Books of History Against the Pagans”).
We’ll skip ahead now to the 16th century, when the adverb “there” started being used in multiples as an interjection to express vexation, dismay, derision, satisfaction, encouragement, and so on.
The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary uses “there, there” to express satisfaction: “They gape vpon me with their mouthes, sayenge: there, there; we se it with oure eyes” (from the Coverdale Bible of 1535, Psalms 35:21; the King James Version of 1611 has “Aha, aha” instead of “there, there”).
The next OED example uses “there” four times to express dismay: “Why there, there, there, there, a diamond gone cost me two thousand ducats” (from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, believed written in the late 1590s).
The earliest example we’ve found for the adverb used to comfort someone is from the early 19th century: “There, there, my dear fellow—nay, don’t cry—it will be all well with you yet” (“Incident at Navarino,” The London Saturday Journal, Oct. 19, 1839).
Oxford’s first citation for the comforting usage appeared several decades later: “ ‘There, there,’ my poor father answered, ‘it is not that’ ” (from Routledge’s Every Boy’s Annual of 1872).
The dictionary’s next use, which we’ve expanded, is from Damon Runyon’s short story “Butch Minds the Baby” (1938): “He lays down his tools and picks up John Ignatius Junior and starts whispering, ‘There, there, there, my itty oddleums. Da-dad is here.’ ”
The most recent OED citation for the usage has “there-there” as a verb meaning to soothe or comfort: “Joyce took the baby … and lovingly there-thered his raucous cries” (from The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, a 1977 crime novel by Colin Dexter).
It’s possible that the comforting sense of “there, there” may have originated in its use with children, though we haven’t found any evidence to support this. Parents use many fully or partly reduplicative expressions in talking to young children: “choo-choo,” “dada,” “itty-bitty,” “mama,” “pee-pee,” “teeny-weeny,” “tum-tum,” “wee-wee,” and so on.
Although “there, there” and the similar expressions “there now” and “now, now” are often used in a comforting way, all three can also be used to express disapproval: “There, there, stop that” … “Now, now, that’s enough” … “There now, watch your language.”