What’s Up with Ways vs. Way?

Ever wonder why we frequently pluralize the word way in sentences like “It’s a good ways down the road”?  It’s because this linguistic curiosity is an American English holdover from the language of Shakespeare’s day (to the etymologist, Early Modern English), when a few British words froze in place on our colonial shores.

Ways is from the Middle English singular noun wayes, which dates all the way back to the 1580s – and I, for one, am happy our Yankee forebears preserved it. Such idiosyncrasies make any language all the more interesting, and the more in our native tongue to track down, the better.

Another antique we held onto was gotten, past participle of the infinitive to get. In the UK of today, Nigel properly says “If I had only got parsnips at the greengrocer’s as planned …” while we continue to tack on the -ten. Two more discarded British words that remain safe in our oldies-but-goodies word bank are fall for autumn and trash for rubbish. I would gladly search for more, but time demands I say toodle-oo  (FYI, a goodbye made popular by Bertie Wooster, the principal character in the unmistakably British Bertie-and-Jeeves novels and short stories written by P. G. Wodehouse between 1917 and 1974).

6 Responses to What’s Up with Ways vs. Way?

  • Rose of LA says:

    Who knew? This makes me want to find more British ‘survivors.’

  • Erik Kowal says:

    It’s perhaps also worth mentioning here the superficially similar Americanism ‘anyways’ (vs. ‘anyway’). It seems to be used mostly in informal situations and in some American dialects.

    I may be wrong, but I do not think this form dates back to the English of Shakespeare’s day.

  • Erik Kowal says:

    To clarify:

    I do not think that anyways dates back to the English of Shakespeare’s day — at least, I could not find any evidence that it does.

    • Fred says:

      But it’s still interesting to speculate on whether the sixteenth-century “ways” later spurred a lot of speakers to add an “s” to “anyway.”

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