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Every now and then - usually when talking with an older individual or someone from the United States Midwest or South - I hear the word "spell" used to mean a short period of time, such as: "Come sit down and rest a spell." I've also heard it used as a verb, like, "When Pete arrives he will spell Tito, who has been working since dawn."

What is the history and origins of this meaning and use of the word spell? And is it a colloquialism or can it be used in more formal settings?

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up vote 11 down vote accepted

Merriam-Webster gives the origin of this meaning as "probably alteration of Middle English spale substitute, from Old English spala."

The Online Etymology Dictionary says the first recorded use of spell to mean an "indefinite period of time" is in 1706.

Also, M-W does not list this usage of spell as a colloquialism or slang, so I think it's appropriate for formal writing, wherever it is appropriate to use such a vague word.

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spell seems folksy when used alone -- "Come over here and sit a spell." -- but much less so when used to cover a specific period of performing a specific task -- "When Bob got tired of conning the boat, I took a spell at the wheel." – Malvolio Jul 31 '11 at 19:07

To answer the latter part of your question "When Pete arrives he will spell Tito, who has been working since dawn."

Spell: "work in place of (another)," Old English spelian "to take the place of," related to gespelia "substitute," of uncertain origin. Perhaps related to spilian "to play" (see spiel). Related: Spelled; spelling. The noun meaning "indefinite period of time" first recorded 1706.

From here

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