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I used to wonder about these usages a lot:

  • Why does "used to" mean "accustomed to"?

  • Why is "used to" used to indicate a recurring past event?

I used to be used to using it.

In that example, there are three meanings of "use".

The etymologies of the first two are the ones I am interested in knowing.

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up vote -1 down vote accepted

Each of the three meanings can be paraphrased...

I [was in the habit of being] [accustomed to] [employing] it.

I assume OP wonders about the first meaning, but in reality I think it's just a tautological overlap with the second. It makes for an ugly sentence, to say the least.

The association of used with acclimatised over time, through repeated exposure or use seems unremarkable to me. I imagine the usage could have been re-coined repeatedly before it became a familiar part of normal speech and writing.

The expression used to in the sense of was in the habit of, has been around a very long time, as @Philoto assiduously researched. But originally it was as likely to be the present tense form use to as past tense used to. I think any such present tense usage today is simply by mistake, not in an attempt to convey 'archaic' connotations.

For some reason I can't really explain, the past tense form shot to prominence in the early 1800s. .

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I think, OP knows what the phrase "to be used to" means. He asks why, not what.. Please correct me, if I'm wrong. – Philoto Jul 4 '11 at 14:43
@fumble: I am wondering about both meanings; how did "used to" come to mean those things? – Daniel Jul 4 '11 at 14:50
@Philoto: Yes, but he asked why about the first two meanings, which I said are basically just unjustified repetition of the same thing. The origin of which I've pointed out seems unremarkable to me. Use, usage, habituation - they're synonyms, not metaphors. – FumbleFingers Jul 4 '11 at 14:54
@drm65: I think use often implies habitual use, as opposed to utilise or employ which might be a one-time-only thing. So I see nothing odd about the ongoing or regular habit becoming more associated with the word over time (as we get used to the usage! :) – FumbleFingers Jul 4 '11 at 15:00
You should know better than to use pre-1800 Ngrams. Tsk tsk. – tchrist Sep 1 '12 at 1:19


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest text using "used to" in the context you ask about is Robert Mannyngs "Handlyng Synne 1303." The quote cited is "For ryche men vse comunly Sweryn grete othys grysly." Translated: "For rich men used to commonly swear great, grisley oaths."

It was in "very common use" from around 1400 onward, but today only appears in the past form of "used to." "wont to do" is another archaic expression that carried the meaning of "used to" in reference to habitual activity in the past.

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@Fumble: You can have a present habit. That is common. – Daniel Jul 4 '11 at 16:31
@drm65: Actually, I'm going to backpedal a bit and add an NGram to my answer, basically reflecting the underlying point in @Philoto's answer. It does seem that the modern usage became prevalent and decisively switched to past tense in the early 1800s. – FumbleFingers Jul 4 '11 at 17:16
@drm65: I think @Fumble's answer hasn't got many votes because it doesn't answer the question you asked. – user1579 Jul 4 '11 at 17:56
@drm65 I can't say I care much about whether my answers are accepted or not :) I'd be glad if it was of some help to someone. – Philoto Jul 5 '11 at 7:47
@Rhodri: My question was, how did "used to" come to mean "accustomed to"? (which was answered) and how did "used to" come to indicate a past habit? (which was answered). I wasn't really asking for the first sightings of the phrase, which @Philoto was kind enough to find for me. I just thought @Fumble gave me a more coherent idea of the evolution of "used to". – Daniel Jul 5 '11 at 11:12

I have no idea, but I will add that, given the long history (14th century onward), it's likely the phrase has undergone a "grammaticalization," much like going to/want to now have "gonna/wanna" for certain, specific uses. I cannot say "I'm gonna the store." So "to be used to sth" might be an offshoot of the original "used to do sth."

Very good question, BTW.

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Sorry--I'm new here and probably should have added this to the "comment" section, rather than the answer section. Lesson learned! – thad Jan 20 '12 at 21:41

In the past, the phone used to be a device with which to contact other people. Today a phone is also a camera and a computer.

In a much easier sentence to speak...

A phone used to be just a phone, now it is used as so much more.

Seems simple to me. People got lazy and dropped some words.

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