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Why we rely on a ‘go-to’

Q: When did people start using the phrase “go-to” as a noun? I don’t recall having heard it when I lived in the States (1953-1975).

A: The use of the noun and earlier adjective “go-to” for a dependable or reliable person or thing showed up in the late 20th century as an American sports usage.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun as “a person who or thing which may be consulted or relied upon; a preferred or favoured option.”

Similarly, the OED says the adjective refers to someone or something “that may be consulted or relied upon; frequently chosen, utilized, or sought out in a particular situation.”

The adjective came first, in a description of reliable basketball players as “go-to guys.” In the earliest Oxford citation, Don Chaney, coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, refers to the NBA guard Derek Smith:

“Derek is one of my go-to guys—players who want the ball in crucial situations” (United Press International, April 4, 1985).

The dictionary’s earliest example of the noun is from another basketball article. The reporter quotes Dennis Rodman of the Chicago Bulls on the subject of Patrick Ewing’s teammates on the New York Knicks:

“ ‘Wannabe stars’ is how Dennis Rodman sized up Ewing’s supporting cast. Now those wannabes are going to make the quantum leap to ‘go-tos’?” (Daily News, New York, Dec. 23, 1997).

Interestingly, a now-archaic version of the noun “go-to” appeared in the mid-19th century, when it was used in the phrase “at one go-to,” meaning in one attempt or without stopping. (Today, one would say “at one go.”)

The OED has this example from a horsey travel memoir: “I am tired with writing it all at one go-to” (Las Alforjas, or, The Bridle-Roads of Spain, 1853, by George John Cayley). Alforjas are saddlebags.

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