Release notes: lasting the course

Release notes: lasting the course

Over the past few years a good deal of the editorial effort of the OED has been focused on revising the entries for core vocabulary. Not infrequently, looking in detail at the patterns of usage shown by familiar, everyday words prompts us to make quite extensive changes to existing OED entries. Partly this is because of real change in the language over the past century or so, and partly it is because the corpora, text databases, and other resources available to us today make it easier to identify the typical patterns of use shown by common words. One word in the current set of newly revised entries that shows both of these points rather well is last v.1

Often the changes that we make involve splitting what OED previously treated as a single sense into two or more senses, to better reflect the range of contemporary uses and their historical origins. In the first and second editions, last v.1 had a sense defined as:

To hold out, continue fresh, unbroken, undecayed, unexhausted. Also (now rarely) of persons: To continue in life.

Here we have split uses where the subject is a human from those where it is non-human, but we have also made a further split, distinguishing uses relating to supplies, provisions, etc., not running out, from uses relating to machinery, batteries, or even food in the fridge remaining in good, usable, or serviceable condition. So we have one sense defined as:

Of provisions, resources, etc.: to continue to be available in sufficient quantities; to be adequate for a specified length of time.

which is shown by examples like these:

1712 P. Motteux et al. tr. Cervantes Don Quixote IV. liv. 1143 But while the Wine lasted all was well.


1991 San Francisco Chron. 26 July a3 (advt.) Receive a beautiful potted topiary plant with your..purchase, while supplies last.

And we have another sense defined as:

To remain in good, usable, or serviceable condition; to continue to operate without impairment, deterioration, or loss of effectiveness (frequently with complement specifying a period of time). In later use also without complement: to remain in good condition or successful operation for a considerable period.

which is shown by examples like these:

1881 Proc. Inst. Mech. Engineers 18 Mar. 275/3 A cutter will usually last for twenty such grindings before it is worn out.


1999 Daily Record (Glasgow) (Nexis) 29 May, The chilli dressing salsa can be made the day before and will last in the fridge for days.

Each of these main strands of usage can be traced back to the Middle English period, but their slow divergence over time into distinct patterns of typical use has prompted us to make them separate senses in the revised entry.

A new sense for last v.1 that we drafted after looking in detail at our evidence was this:

Of a relationship, agreement, etc.: to extend, endure, or remain in force or effect for a specified period (typically before breaking down or being terminated).

Shown by examples like this one:

2001 N.Y. Times Mag. 7 Jan. 46/1 His new marriage lasted seven years.

This sense is “new” to the OED, but, when we researched it in detail, turned out not to be new to the language at all: examples can be found dating from as far back as the 1400s (the earliest example refers to a legal statute, while recent examples very often refer to marriages or peace treaties).

Another pattern of use for which we have created a new sense in the OED does appear to have been genuinely rather newer when the first edition was being compiled, namely someone lasting in a job, post, etc., for which the earliest evidence we have found dates from the 1840s:

To manage to continue, persist, or persevere in a position, task, etc.; to survive, endure. Also with out. Frequently with complement specifying a period of time.

Here is the earliest example known to us, plus two more typical recent ones:

1848 tr. A. Thiers Rights of Prop. iv. vi. 268 While he [sc. General Buonaparte] lasted, the acquisitions of national property were considered a safe investment.


1993 Globe & Mail (Toronto) 17 June a27/4 If she shilly-shallies as she has in the past two months, she won’t last long at the head of the country.


2010 L. Bayard School of Night xiii. 158 Believe me, Amory wouldn’t have lasted five minutes without spilling.

Two phrases have been added that are common today, but it is not surprising that OED omitted them from its 1902 entry, since the very earliest examples we have been able to find date only from the last decades of the nineteenth century: to last the course and it was fun while it lasted:

1872 Graphic 16 Mar. /1 Mr. Houblon is a very light man compared with the heavy crew behind him, and we doubt very much whether his stroke will be long enough, and whether he will last the course.


1888 New Albany (Indiana) Evening Tribune 8 May 3/1 This ever to be 28 year old star wakes up some fine morning to find herself in the shades of past youth…But it was fun while it lasted.

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