Q: I’m mystified by what seems to be the recent use of “well wishes” rather than “good wishes” or “best wishes.” Is “well wishes” really correct? Shouldn’t the modifier be an adjective, not an adverb?
A: The usual expression is “good wishes” or “best wishes,” but “well wishes” has been used for hundreds of years in the same sense.
All three were first recorded in the late 16th century. A search with Google’s Ngram viewer of digitized books indicates that “good wishes” and “best wishes” have alternated in popularity over the years, while “well wishes” has been a distant third.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “well wishes” as “an instance of wishing well to someone or something.” The dictionary says the expression was formed by combining the adverb “well” and the noun “wish.”
Interestingly, “well” has been used adjectivally since Anglo-Saxon times in various constructions indicating good fortune.
In this expanded OED example from the epic poem Beowulf, dating back to as early as 725, the Old English wel is used in the sense of fortunate:
“Wel bið þæm þe mot æfter deaðdæge drihten secean / ond to fæder fæþmum freoðo wilnian” (“Well be he who in death can face the Lord and find friendship in the Father’s embrace”).
The earliest OED citation for “well wishes,” which we’ve also expanded, is from an English translation of a 15th-century Spanish poem about an old man’s reflections on love:
“Thou art that spirit that S. Powle, / Did feele to wrestle with his soule, / And pray’d our Lord to set him free / From such a peeuish enemie of his wel-wishes.” (From Loues Owle, an Idle Conceited Dialogue Betwene Loue, and an Olde Man, 1595, Anthony Copley’s translation of Rodrigo de Cota’s Dialogo Entre el Amor y un Caballero Viejo.)
Oxford adds that the expression is usually plural and “now less common than best or good wishes.” The dictionary also notes the earlier verb “well-wish” (1570), noun “well-wishing” (1562), and adjective “well-wishing” (1548).
As for the more common “best wishes,” the OED defines it as “an expression of hope for a person’s future happiness or welfare, often used formulaically at the end of a letter, card, etc.”
The first citation is from a letter written by the Earl of Essex on Oct. 16, 1595: “This … is … accompanyed with my best wishes, from your lordship’s most affectionate cosin and friend, Essex.”
The OED, an etymological dictionary, doesn’t have an entry for “good wishes,” and neither do the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult.
The earliest example we’ve found is from an analysis of Psalm 129 in a 16th-century treatise on the Book of Psalms:
“Vers. 8. Teacheth vs, that it is a testamonie of Gods great curse vppon vs to want either the prayers or good wishes of the godly, howsoeuer the world make no account of the one or the other” (A Very Godly and Learned Exposition, Upon the Whole Booke of Psalmes, 1591, by Thomas Wilcox).
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