WATCH: Do You Give Presents Or Gifts?
Where do the words gift and present come from? Why does English use both? We’re pretty sure 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.
So, let’s dig a little deeper into the histories and meanings of these two words.
What is a gift?
Gift means “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, gift is found in the senses of “dowry, marriage gift” in the singular, and “nuptials, marriage” in the plural. The familiar sense of gift, as in “an object freely given to another person,” emerges in the 1200s. In the 1300s, we can find gift meaning “a special talent.”
The word gift appears to come from an Old Norse word, with cousins across the Germanic language. Speaking of cousins, you are probably wondering: is gift related to the verb give, “to present voluntarily and without expecting compensation; bestow”?
In a word, yes. Like gift, the English verb give is found in forms in Old English but also influenced by Old Norse forms, too. Suffice it to say, both gift and give share ancient Germanic roots.
Now, how about using gift as a verb? That’s a new thing, isn’t it? That may be a new pet peeve of some people, but using gift as verb is old, too, going back to at least 1600s. Switching the parts of speech of words, like using a noun as a verb, is one of the great, well, gifts of the English language.
And then there’s 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. This verb is also older than you think, found in the 1800s!
What is a present?
But, what about gift‘s synonym, present? Present was imported into English from French, ultimately from the Latin praeësse, “to be present, before others,” as when one is presiding over something or is in charge.Present, as a noun for a “gift,” is found in English in the 1200s. The sense of present as a verb for “to give a gift” is found by the 1300s.
Is there another word?If neither gift nor present are your favorite words, you could always use one of these gift-related terms to spice up the holiday season:
When did gifts become an essential part of the Christmas holiday? Learn more about Santa and his sidekicks here.