Q: I’ve always felt that you need “it” in a sentence like “He lorded it over them.” But I sometimes see the usage without it. Is this permissible, or are people just not getting the idiomatic use of “it”?
A: The verb “lord” is used in three different ways when it means to act in a superior or domineering manner: (1) “He lorded over them,” (2) “He lorded it over them,” and (3) “He lorded himself over them.”
A search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks usage in digitized books, indicates that the first two are about equally popular, while the third appears much less often..
The verb is intransitive in #1 and transitive in #2 and #3. A transitive verb is one with a direct object. In #2 the object is “it,” while in #3 the object is a reflexive pronoun.
The Oxford English Dictionary describes the use of “it” here as “a vague or indefinite object of a transitive verb,” and adds that the transitive use has “the same meaning as the intransitive use.”
When “lord” first appeared as a verb in the 14th century, it meant “to have the status of a lord; to govern, rule; to have a presiding authority or influence,” a sense that’s now obsolete, according to the OED.
The dictionary’s first citation is from Confessio Amantis (“The Lover’s Confession,” circa 1390), a long Middle English poem by John Gower: “On [One] lordeth, and an other serveth.”
In the 16th century, “lord” came to mean “to act in the supposed manner of a lord; to behave in an arrogant, disdainful, or dissipated manner; to rule tyrannically; to dominate.” The verb was used at the time both with and without “it” (but not with “over,” which didn’t appear in the usage until a century later).
The first OED example for “lord” used without “it” is from a sermon by Hugh Latimer, a Church of England reformer who was burned at the stake outside Balliol College, Oxford, and is one of the three Oxford Martyrs of Anglicanism:
“For they [the Apostles] preached and lorded not. And nowe they lorde and preache not” (“A Notable Sermō of Ye Reuerende Father Maister Hughe Latemer, Whiche He Preached in Ye Shrouds at Paules Churche in Londō, on the .XVIII. Daye of January. 1548”).
The dictionary’s earliest example for the verb “lord” used with “it” is from a book about Christian martyrs: “Suche Byshoppes as minister not, but lorde it” (Acts and Monuments, 1563, by the English historian John Foxe).
In the 17th century, versions with “over” began appearing, and the OED says it’s usually present today. Here are the first examples, both with and without “it”:
- “Lording it over the Consciences of the people” (A Treatise of the Confession of Sinne, 1657, by the English theologian Thomas Aylesbury).
- “Had Judah that day join’d, or one whole Tribe, / They had by this possess’d the Towers of Gath / And lorded over them whom now they serve.” (We’ve expanded this citation from Milton’s poem Samson Agonistes, 1671. Gath was a major Philistine city.)
The earliest OED citation for the verb “lord” used with a reflexive pronoun is from a religious tract responding to the writings of George Fox and other Quakers of the 17th century. Here’s an expanded version:
“G F. hath remembred the Affliction of Joseph, and doth not Lord himself over the Light of God in others; this is false, and R. R. might have applyed it at home” (from Something in Answer to a Book Printed in 1678, Called, The Hidden Things Brought to Light, 1679, by Robert Rich, a Quaker who often challenged other Quakers).
Finally, here are the most recent OED citations for “lord over,” “lord it over,” and “lord oneself over”:
- “The Manchus, from their own separate world, lorded over and indeed lived off the Han” (Manchus & Han, 2000, by Edward J. M. Rhoads). We’ve expanded the citation.
- “Lording it over them was one of the pleasures of my father’s old age” (The Times Literary Supplement, London, March 11, 2005).
- “It smacked of colonialism, patriarchy, bad white men lording themselves over voiceless minions” (The New York Times, Oct. 9, 2011).