Release notes: have, look, large, late

Release notes: have, look, large, late

The history of many words consists of a straightforward series of meanings, in which each meaning represents a greater or smaller modification of the one before. In other words, there are clearly several such series, with each new series representing a modification of the first. This is a very tree-like structure, and so the OED has always referred to these distinct series as branches.

In this quarter’s release, there are several words which play a big part in the English language, and which are characterized by an interesting branch structure.

Have is a verb which you might consider rather empty of meaning. Doesn’t it mean simply ‘possess’? Yes, and that is the core sense of Branch I. But even within this, there are variations: ‘I’d like to have a really good job, a nice car, a nice house’ for example, is not quite the same as ‘He had long brown hair’. It also expresses relationship or condition, where the sense of possession is weakened or lost. It covers, for example, the people with whom we have some relationship (‘If we note well what enemies we haue’ (1569)) or the presence, location, or position of something in relation to something else, for example ‘Sitting at his writing table, he has on his right the windows giving on Portland Place’; and this leads on to uses like ‘I know it was Valentine’s Day because they had the lights out for a movie’, ‘He had a reputation to maintain’, ‘It is proper that others should have an opportunity to experiment’.

Branch II, by contrast, is much more active, dealing with coming into possession of things, and includes eating and drinking, bearing children, and seizing a person, among other uses: ‘I had a present from Major Myers of a large jelly cake, iced all over’ (1866); ‘Wi-Fi cards and access points can be had for less than $100 apiece’; ‘Waiter, I’ll have pork chops with fried potatoes’; ‘My wife threw a swingling board at the man who had me by the hand’ (1819).

Branch III is actually more passive than Branch I, in that it deals with experiencing such things as emotions, dreams, illnesses, and particular times and circumstances: ‘One Brother was so elevated..that he boasted of having Visions of Angels attending him’ (1751); ‘The losers—the boozers, I’ve had them up to here’; ‘Toasts were drunk, speeches made, and a generally enjoyable time was had by all’ (1879); ‘It’s bad enough when checkout operators intone, “Have a nice day” in a robotic voice’.

Branch IV, like the preceding Branch, is essentially abstract, but in contrast is again active, covering the action of keeping, holding, or maintaining something, or even carrying something out: ‘Every one has a higher opinion of himself than his station warrants’ (1833); ‘Shut up. I’m wallowing in misery, here. Have a little respect’; ‘Eric is sitting at the kitchen table having his morning rage’; ‘Mr. Hall will not have it that Robin Hood made free with other people’s goods, and his vindication is spirited’ (1841)

The fifth Branch means ‘to cause to be or become’, and can be seen as much more functional or grammatical, and less full of denotational meaning. It covers constructions like those seen in the following examples: ‘The Federalist party had him before the bar of the house and tried to expel him’; ‘This is not the weighing counter. Have it weighed at Counter No. 5’; ‘The by no means so clear as he would have us believe’; ‘An estimated 520,000 households had their landline or broadband services switched without their consent’. It is very much a transitional aspect of the verb, leading to the final Branches, which cover the uses of have as an auxiliary of the perfect (‘you’d have laughed’), uses with the infinitive (‘you’ll have to excuse me’), and had rather, had better, etc., which I don’t propose to discuss here.

Have is therefore a very bushy tree, with several main branches, each of which has a thicket of subsidiary ones. Look is much simpler, but it embodies a rather striking change of meaning. It starts from  ‘to direct one’s sight’ (Branch I), which can of course involve applying the mind, being careful, searching, and expecting, among other not inconsiderable variations: ‘They open the book and they look if your name’s on it’; ‘The situation, whichever way he looked at it, was uncomfortable’; ‘Two lovers looking to be wed’; ‘ Look, if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, we need to admit that we wanted it all’.

It takes a 180-degree turn at Branch II. The object looked at or contemplated becomes the subject, and the consideration is now what effect it has on the observer, or at least what the observer thinks is the state of the object: ‘Things had, by that time, begun to look badly for all concerned’ (1891); ‘I see that some of my hearers look surprised at the expression’; ‘She looked her full forty-three years’. Branch III is a quite separate offshoot of Branch I. Here the switch is from an agent that is facing in a direction and seeing, to one that is just facing a certain way (without vision): ‘A window in one wall which looks on to a small office’.

Some words that have been borrowed into English from French or Latin have main Branches of sense which are not really organic developments made by native speakers at all. Rather, they reflect major meanings that evolved in the word in its language of origin, which were then taken over into English, in some cases all at the same time and in others at different times, given that English has remained in close contact with Latin and French for long periods of time. An example from the current release is the adjective large, whose familiar major meaning ‘great in size, amount, or degree’ is flanked by two other Branches. Very slightly earlier (they both date from early Middle English) is a meaning ‘(of a person) generous’, which has long been obsolete in standard English. And a little later (late Middle English) is a Branch covering ‘not rigorous or restricted; free; lax’, none of whose senses are much used now: ‘Using the plausibility of large and indefinite words, to defend himself’ (Milton, 1649); ‘Our people in this Colony are, some strict Congregationall men, others more large Congregationall men, and some moderate Presbeterians’ (1680); ‘to make acquaintance with sailors of large morality’ (1866).

Adjectives are prone to subtle but nonetheless definite branching. Late is particularly interesting in this respect. As a very common word, its subtleties are rarely noticed in use. Its earliest Branch, going back to old English, has to do with delay—things happening after they are expected to. (In fact the first sense, long obsolete in standard English, is ‘slow’.) It includes the central meaning seen in ‘The cab is at the door; don’t be late for the train’; ‘Maybe they’d left it too late’, and such phenomena as ‘a late spring’ and ‘crocuses are late this year’.

The second Branch, dating from the fourteenth century, is to do with advanced time. In these senses, the idea that the event should have occurred at a prior time is only in the background, and the primary sense is just that the event is happening towards the end of a period rather than the beginning or middle. It covers such uses as: ‘Most of the guys fancied a late drink and headed off into the night to the Irish Centre’; ‘“Isn’t it getting late?’ ‘Is it? I don’t know—I’m a late person.”’; ‘A young boy and a girl in their late teens’; ‘Ray Harford’s side lost to a late goal to..Nottingham Forest’.

The third Branch features a major shift in viewpoint. In the first Branch the speaker is looking forward to something that is delayed; in the second they are looking at a range of times from a more or less neutral position; here they are looking back, and the meaning relates to recent time. The major senses here are as in: ‘The place belonged to her late husband, Sir James’ and ‘The late war in Afghanistan and the pending war with Iraq will do little to defeat terrorism’. The contrast between Branches I and III only strikes you when you encounter this usage, specific to southern Africa: ‘My father was John Piliso and my mother’s name was Emily. Both are late’—a usage which has often given rise to misunderstandings, as in the following exchange. First speaker: ‘My uncle won’t be coming as he is late’. Second speaker: ‘That’s OK, latecomers are welcome’.


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