Wait, there's more!

How can the word 'wait' that's basically just standing there seem to move in so many different directions, the Monitor's language columnist wonders.

Last week in this space I poked around a bit on how the word hope has lost some of its "oomph" over the past few centuries. As I did, I kept running into another important short word: wait.

Wait may be the handmaiden of hope, but it has quite a life of its own. Who knew that a single simple word could evolve in so many different directions with not only different but often contradictory meanings?

One of my puzzlements was whether the biblical waiting on meant "serving," as it does today ("waiting on customers") or was an old-fashioned way of saying "waiting for." Standard English usage has us "wait for" someone or something. A waiter or salesclerk "waits on," or serves, customers. But otherwise "to wait on someone" is a regionalism. It's commonly heard in the American South, and perhaps other places as well. ("I'm waiting on him to come home.")

But regionalisms are often older usages that happen to fall out of favor within the larger community of speakers of a language. That should have been a clue on the biblical waiting on. And a little checking among newer translations showed they mostly render the phrase as "waiting for."

But what about the "waiting on" that servants do? Where does that fit? It turns out that waiters really are, etymologically speaking, servants who stand around and wait – for their lordship and ladyship, respectively, to finish their soup, or whatever. The term was used first in private homes before it was applied to those working in commercial establishments.

For all its connection with service, though, wait has rather a darker background. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, wait came into English around 1200, and meant "to watch with hostile intent, lie in wait for." You might call this the other end of the spectrum of interpersonal interaction. Wait has Germanic roots and made its way into English via Old North French.

Waiting and watching often go together, and both concepts can take either a good or evil direction. Both share the same Germanic roots. Waiting often involves a physical presence ("I waited at the airport for them") and sometimes an element of physical inaction plus an element of intent. ("He's just waiting for the right moment to act.") The essence of watching seems to be staying awake and keeping an eye on someone or something. One can watch over someone, or watch out for one's own safety or for an opportunity to strike at another.

This extended family of words has a number of other cousins as well: wary, for example, is rooted in an alert watchfulness. So is ward, in various forms – to ward off trouble, a ward (someone under the watchful care) of the state, and so on. And don't forget guard and guardian, also from the same roots but with a path into English from Old French.

Even wardrobe is part of this extended family. Before it came to mean the clothes someone owns, it was the closet where they were somehow supervised ("warded over").

Trivia point for serious word nerds: Both the warden who is in charge of a prison and the guards whom he or she supervises have job titles derived from the same root. Usually in English a French-derived word is more elevated than its Germanic relative. But in this case, the Germanic word goes to the boss, and the underlings have a title that comes from medieval French.

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