Q: In a novel I’m reading, a character in London during World War II says to himself, “Can’t fix anything if I get shot for a Jerry spy.” I recognise this use of “for” (being British myself), but it seems an old-fashioned, RAF-blokes-with-mustaches construction. What can you tell us about it?
A: We don’t believe that use of “for” in The Coldest War, a 2012 novel by Ian Tregillis, is all that uncommon now in American or British English, though it’s usually seen in the phrases “taken for” and “mistaken for,” where the preposition “for” means “as” or “as being” or “to be.”
Here are a few recent examples from the news media in the US and the UK:
“Two deputies will be suspended and a Florida sheriff has apologized after a visually impaired man was arrested last month when his walking cane was mistaken for a gun” (NBC News, Nov. 9, 2022).
“Why I Keep Getting Mistaken for a Conservative” (headline of an article by the American culture writer and novelist Kat Rosenfield in National Review, Oct. 27, 2022).
“No one likes to feel like they’ve been taken for a fool, least of all financial markets” (The New Statesman, Oct. 12, 2022).
“As a humanist who writes about the impact of digital technology on our lives, I am often mistaken for a futurist” (The Guardian, Sept. 4, 2022).
The Oxford English Dictionary says “for” here means “in the character of,” “in the light of,” or “as equivalent to,” and adds that “as or as being may generally be substituted.” The preposition used in this sense first appeared in Old English and is similar to terms in Old Frisian and Old Saxon.
The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from the epic poem Beowulf, which may have been written as early as 725:
“Me men sægde Þæt þu ðe for sunu wolde hereri[n]c habban” (“Men say to me that you wish to have this hero for a son”). Wealhtheow, the Danish queen, is speaking to her husband, King Hrothgar, about Beowulf, who is sitting between the king’s two sons, Hrethric and Hrothmund, at a banquet.
And here’s an expanded OED example from the 18th century: “You’ll be hanged for a Pirate, and the particulars examined afterwards” (The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, 1719, by Daniel Defoe).
We’ll end with this arboreal OED example from The Silverado Squatters (1883), Robert Louis Stevenson’s memoir about his honeymoon with Fanny Vandegrift in Napa Valley, California:
“The oak is no baby; even the madrona, upon these spurs of Mount Saint Helena, comes to a fine bulk and ranks with forest trees—but the pines look down upon the rest for underwood.”