Do You Give Presents or Gifts?

gift, present, Christmas

Where do the words gift and present come from? Why does English use both? It’s not just so that children can ask for toys in multiple ways.

Language is not a linear, predestined development. Even though it may feel as if the language we speak is in some way the logical conclusion of thousands of years of development, every word that we use has a unique, sometimes circuitous history.

The word gift wandered through multiple meanings before arriving at its current common meaning: “something given voluntarily without payment in return, as to show favor toward someone, honor an occasion, or make a gesture of assistance.” In Old English, its most dominant meaning was “payment for a wife,” or a dowry. Gift originates in the Proto-Indo-European base ghabh- which came from the Sanskrit word gabhasti meaning “hand or forearm.” (Gabhasti is also the root of the word habit.) While gift became associated only with marriage payments, the related verb give followed a different trajectory of meaning; it denoted the specific act of putting something in someone else’s hands, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Around the 1300s, the word gift began to assume a more general meaning of an object freely given to another person.

But what about its synonym present? Present was imported into English from Old Norman (also called Old French). Present originally meant the same thing as the adjective present, “being there.” It was used in the French phrase mettre en present, to mean “to offer in the presence of.” By the early 1300s, it became synonymous with the thing being offered. (Present did not acquire the sense of “the present time” until the 1500s.)

A more recent evolution of the term came in the popular word regift. The word refers to the common practice of giving away a gift that you received from someone else, like candles, bubble bath, and ugly slippers.

If gift and present do not suffice, you could always use one of these gift-related terms:
lagniappe
succor
potlatch
bonhomie
beneficence

(When did gifts become an essential part of the Christmas holiday? Learn more about Santa and his sidekicks here.)

Do you use gift and present in different ways?