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Often in athletics, horse racing and when you encounter a person with an injured limb or other thing it will be said "He seems to be favoring his right leg" by which a person/commentator/etc means "He seems to be having trouble with his right leg". This seems counter to the typical meaning of "to favor" which would mean "to show preference towards" in fact an injured leg often means preferring the other leg.

How did this meaning come about?

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closed as general reference by FumbleFingers, MετάEd, kiamlaluno, Rory Alsop, Kristina Lopez May 17 '13 at 17:59

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

If you have two employees doing the same job and you favor one, then you put more unpleasant work on the other one. That's what someone with a painful leg does; they favor the painful leg by putting more work onto the other leg. – John Lawler May 16 '13 at 3:18
Not wishing to seem like a smartass, I think the explanation as given by John is so blindingly obvious the question itself is General Reference. – FumbleFingers May 16 '13 at 3:19
It's a metaphor. Most blindingly obvious things are metaphors. But we grow up with them, and others don't. – John Lawler May 16 '13 at 3:29
@FumbleFingers - It wasn't that obvious to me and I kind of agree with John that it's a metaphor much effortlessly understood by the native speakers. – Mohit May 16 '13 at 3:52
@FumbleFingers As a native English speaker, I'm well aware of the expression - but (not being a racing or athletics fan) I've always assumed that it means the opposite of what it apparently does mean! – TrevorD May 16 '13 at 11:04
up vote 8 down vote accepted

The OED has this use of the verb favour dating back to the 16th century:

7. To deal gently with; to avoid overtasking (a limb); to ease, save, spare. Now colloq. (esp. in stable parlance) and dial.

1526 W. Bonde Pylgrimage of Perfection iii. sig. YYYiiiiv, Fauour thy body.

1590 R. Harvey Plaine Percevall sig. C4v, A Preacher..must haue his reader at his elbow, to fauor his voice.

1607 G. Markham Cavelarice ii. 42 When a horse doth stand but firme vpon..three feete..fauoring the other.

Earlier senses are: to regard with favour; look kindly upon; to treat kindly; to treat with partiality; to aid or support.

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+1: I figured the OED would have early citations like this. Thanks for providing them! So the usage doesn't go all the way back to the 14th C., but it does go almost to Middle English. – Bradd Szonye May 16 '13 at 7:01
The usage may well go that far back, but the known record does not (yet) :) – Hugo May 16 '13 at 7:03
Good point! Also, I found the 1590 citation especially interesting. – Bradd Szonye May 16 '13 at 7:17

In that context, favor has the meaning “treat with care”; stated that way, the connection to other senses of the word is more obvious.

This usage it appears at least as early as 1826 in Robert Drury's Journal:

I walked on this seventh day; and though I favored my lame foot as much as I could, yet I rested but once all day. This way happened to be plain and easy.

However, this is the fourth edition of a book first published in 1729, so the usage may be considerably older, potentially predating Modern English. Favor first saw use as a verb in the mid-14th Century.

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Downvoter: I realize that this isn't my best answer ever, so if you have constructive criticism I'd appreciate it. – Bradd Szonye May 16 '13 at 8:18
@ Bradd: The downvoter isn't me, but maybe it was cast when my earlier comment was valid. Whatever - "best answer ever" or not, I'll delete that comment, because it no longer applies. – FumbleFingers May 16 '13 at 12:56
@FumbleFingers Thanks – and thanks again for helping to improve the answer. – Bradd Szonye May 16 '13 at 13:02

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