The Unhappy Life of “Used To”

I don’t know how this perverse little phrase was born. It has always struck a dissonant chord in my perception of language, although this is probably due to a personal grudge I have harbored since early childhood, when I thought it was a single word, “usta.” Life was so much simpler then. Eventually I learned that it was two words, “used” and “to,” which if you think about it, when put together, make absolutely no damn sense.

Stop and think about the different usages of the phrase “used to.” It is most often employed as a synonym for “previously” or “in the past” – “I used to love Bea Arthur,” or “crack whoring is not what it used to be.” Another, altogether different, definition is “accustomed to” – “Abe Vigoda is still alive, get used to it” or “I just need to get used to all these fistulas.”

But “use” is a word of utility; to use something or put something to good use – “I will use this coat hanger to perform an emergency tracheotomy” or “I should use a sterlizing agent to prevent infection.” To use something is perhaps to handle something, so to “get used” to something makes as much as sense as to “get handled.” Doesn’t that sound awful?

And did I mention that, for as much as I love the English language in all it multifarious permutations, it is truly deficient in that it only has one word for “love”? That’s what we get for leaving our linguistic development in the hands of Limeys and Jerrys.

7 thoughts on “The Unhappy Life of “Used To””

  1. In defense of English, even though we only have one word for love, we overload it with all kinds of meanings.

    For instance the single noun “love” in English is represented by at least two words in Greek: “eros” and “agapé.” Greek splits sexual and Platonic love into two separate concepts. (Although I don’t know about modern Greek; I’m talking ancient and Biblical Greek here). In English, it’s all one.

    The result may be that English is less precise than other languages, but it’s also more plastic and expressive. And I think that makes up for the lack of precision.

  2. And overload is a good thing? The overload is precisely the problem. I say, “I love olives” and that’s a completely different statement from “I love you.” The plasticity, the expressiveness has to come from context and connotation, which is something the English language in general relies heavily on.

    One pleasant side effect is that the English language does allow scripted theatre to be performed in many different ways because so much of what we say is unspoken.

  3. I see nothing wrong with relying on context; we already do, anyway. So much of human communication is non-verbal, we’re already going to have to rely on context a lot.

    Besides, when was the last time you had a conversation that didn’t have a context? Put another way, have you ever stated that someone was taking your words out of context and meant it as a good thing? 😉

  4. Obviously context is important, but it’s that overload question again. Having only one word for love and a hundred ways to say it is far less advantageous, I would think, than having a hundred words for love and hundred ways to say each of them. If only we used eros and agape, that would be a start…

  5. To speak to the point raised by Heath, English is less precise. The anglo-saxon basis of English is a crude language for a practical people. In fact, as both of you are probably far more versed in than I, most of the Anglo-Saxon words in English are for common everyday objects. Moreover, the reason why Scientists borrow heavily from Greek is because it is a far more precise language than English. If a person is interested in a more exacting means of expressing the nature of his love for someone, then he might be well served to borrow a word from another language to do so. The practice of borrowing words from other languages has been a time-honored tradition throughout the history of the English language.

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