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Where did the phrase pay a visit come from?

Sometimes I hear instances of conversations like

I paid a visit to the local cemetery to see my granddad's tombstone/grave

or something like that. Normally, I don't think you'd pay to go through a cemetery, but, oh well.

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2 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Pay has long been used in contexts other than monetary, and there is nothing in the word’s etymology to restrict it in such a way. The earliest use in reference to a visit seems to be in Shakespeare’s ‘Winter’s Tale’:

I thinke, this comming Summer, the King of Sicilia meanes to pay Bohemia the Visitation, which hee iustly owes him.

In the same century we find:

I went‥to pay hir a visit.

In the UK, at least, pay a visit can, in the right context, mean ‘go to the lavatory’ (or bathroom in American English).

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Thank you for that first usage - with that, the derivation of this usage makes sense to me: "1150–1200; Middle English payen < Old French paier < Medieval Latin pācāre to satisfy, settle (a debt), Latin: to pacify (by force of arms)." If, as Shakespeare seems to indicate, the original sense of "pay a visit" was "discharge a social obligation", then it all makes sense. These days, we use the phrase synonymously with "visit", and the connection is non-obvious. –  MT_Head Jun 4 '12 at 6:43
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I paid a visit to the cemetery to pay respect to the good man that had died, but nobody paid attention and I left unnoticed.

As you can see, "pay a visit" is not the only case where the verb is not related to payment or compensation as in the monetary sense. In all three usages above, its meaning is closer to give or offer instead.

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