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Friday, January 16, 2015

Wishing well

Several people have asked me in the last few months about the term "well wishes", as in "Thanks for your well wishes." Shouldn't it be "good wishes", they want to know. What is it with these newfangled changes to the language?!

Usually, when there is a flurry of questions about a usage, it means that particular usage has reached a tipping point in people's consciousness because it has become frequent. It also usually means it's too late to change it, should you be so foolish as to want to attempt to do so.

Indeed, "well wishes" has been on a startling upward trajectory in the last 30 years:

But to stop this nefarious new development in its tracks, you would have had to step in ... in Tudor times. The OED's first evidence of the phrase is this:

1595   A. Copley tr. R. de Cota Loves Owle sig. B2v, in Wits Fittes & Fancies   Thou art that spirit that S. Powle..pray'd our Lord to set him free From such a peeuish enemie of his wel-wishes.

"Best wishes" dates from about the same time, and it and "good wishes" have been very much more common over the years than "well wishes" (I have no explanation for the apparent peak of benevolence in the 1830s followed by a downward slide since then!):

People no doubt feel (and indeed have argued to me) that the adjectives "best" and "good" are what is required by the noun "wishes", whereas "well" must be wrong because it's an adverb. But "well" is also an adjective, and even a noun. In fact, in the phrase "I wish you well", "well" isn't functioning in a very adverby way. "I wish you well" is more like "I wish you joy/success/the best etc." or the archaic "I wish you happy" than it is like "I sincerely wish you would go away".

However you parse it, although "well wishes" is still dwarfed by its rivals, it does seem to be staging a comeback, no doubt helped along by the related "well-wisher" and "well-wishing".  

Since I was so embroiled in keys, quays, and cays last week, I haven't had a chance to wish all Wordlady readers well for 2015 (now, why don't we say "fiveteen"?), so let me do that now.

For another post about "well", click here.

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.