English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Left for dead

Q: I’m curious when the phrase “left for dead” became common usage. Why is the phrase not “left to die”? I saw the “for dead” version recently in an article and I began wondering.

A: The expression “leave for dead” first appeared in Anglo-Saxon times and has been used regularly since then to mean abandon someone or something almost dead or certain to die.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary, which we’ve expanded here, is from a passage concerning St. Paul in The Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church, First Series, written around 990 by the Benedictine Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham:

“Æne he wæs gestæned oð deað, swa ðæt þa ehteras hine for deadne leton, ac ðæs on merigen he aras, and ferde ymbe his bodunge” (“Once he was stoned unto death, so much so that the persecutors left him for dead, but on the morrow he arose and went about his preaching”). In Old English, “hine for deadne leton” is literally “him for dead left.”

As the OED explains, the preposition “for” is being used here “with an adjective as complement.” This use of “for,” the dictionary adds, is now found chiefly in “set expressions, as in to give a person up for lost, to leave a person for dead, to take for granted, etc.”

In early Old English, the preposition “for” began being used similarly with a noun to mean “with a view to; with the object or purpose of; as preparatory to,” according to the OED.

Here’s a citation from the Gospel of John, 11:4, in the West Saxon Gospels: “Nys þeos untrumnys na for deaðe, ac for Godes wuldre” (“This sickness is not for death, but for the glory of God”). Jesus is speaking about the ailing Lazarus.

Getting back to your question, one could say “left to die” as well as “left for dead.” Both have been common for centuries. In fact, “left to die” is slightly more popular, according to Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books.

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