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I read this phrase in Alan Bennett’s Diary years ago and found it so unusual I’ve never forgotten it. Italics mine:

8 December. Trying to find someone a Meccano set for Christmas, I’m reminded of a couple, friends of Russell H., who had a son of twelve or so who they were worried might be growing up gay. However, they were greatly heartened when the boy said that what he wanted for Christmas was a Meccano set. Delighted by what they saw as an access of butchness, they bought him the biggest set they could find …

The Free Dictionary provides this fifth and final definition for the noun access: 5. An outburst or onset: an access of rage.

And Dictionary.com this: 5. an attack or onset, as of a disease.

My Shorter OED lists ten definitions of access, of which: 1. A (sudden) coming on of illness b. spec an Ague fit (LME-L19) and 10. An outburst of anger or other emotion.

In four decades of extensive reading in English, I have never come across “access of” until this reading. Given the definitions, whether outburst or onset, I think Bennett’s use of it in context is brilliant.

I’m curious to find other examples of this usage. Is it archaic? Precious? Fully contemporary? Is it more British, more American? Doing an internet search for “access of” does not lead to obvious examples. Typically you’ll find “access of (subject) to (object).” This has me thinking it must be used more in literary contexts. And if so, does anyone have any contemporary examples of its use?

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Here is one example from this year. And another –  Jim Jun 11 '12 at 4:48
The definition in question is not listed as 'archaic' in the dictionary entries, but I've certainly never heard it in any usage - literary or otherwise. –  Lynn Jun 11 '12 at 5:23
@Jim Both texts you link to read perfectly well as misspellings of excess. "In an excess of generosity [employers have been given one year to comply]" and "in an excess of outrage [I’m totally overstating my opposition to fantasy]" are how I would read them. –  MετάEd Jun 11 '12 at 13:21
According to Etymology Online, "access" (n.) was borrowed from the French in the 14C and meant "an attack of fever", but was soon after reborrowed from the Latin when it basically took the modern meaning. –  MετάEd Jun 11 '12 at 13:51
Google Ngram Viewer locates only one document in the time period which uses the word "access" in a medical sense -- but that is an error in the transcription of blackletter typeface: the actual text is "[Aloë] boyled with wine and hony, healeth the outgrowinges & riftes of the fundement,& ſtoppeth the abounding fluxe of the Hemorrhoides, being layde uppon : for being receiued into the body,it cauſeth the Hemorrhoides to breake out,and to bleed". –  MετάEd Jun 11 '12 at 13:51

6 Answers 6

up vote 1 down vote accepted

From Jonathan's Franzen's Freedom (2011): "Patty did her utmost to play this role, but finally, in an access of depression, she sat down..." (p. 183). Consonant with usage 1 in the Shorter Oxford.

Nb Mind you, the copy I have of Freedom is the uncorrected first UK edition, which was pulped since it was not printed from the final proofs, and includes hundreds of mistakes. So if ever this usage was likely to be a typo for 'excess' this would be the instance! (But, of course, it is not.)

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Interesting. I found the sentence on this site: litmir.net/br/?b=126319&p=47 (the banners on the site are written in Cyrillic, so I haven't a clue what the site is all about!) - so it very very likely wasn't a typo there. Thanks! –  JAM Jul 13 '12 at 18:34

It's a rare, but perfectly normal, usage: my Chambers dictionary gives one meaning of access as 'addition or accession', which probably gives a clue to the derivation. Dictionary.com has a quotation:

"... protesting against this unprecedented access of generosity. The very picture, as MCEWAN said, of a good man struggling with the adversity of overwhelming good fortune."

— Punch, or the London Charivari, Volume 100, May 9, 1891 • Various

And it seems altogether more likely than a repeated misprint for 'delighted by an excess'.

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Thanks. I wonder if Bennett was being deliberately archaic in his usage, given that he was writing in the late 20th century and your quote is from a century earlier. –  JAM Jun 19 '12 at 16:06
Bennett uses something like it again in "The Uncommon Reader", London Review of Books, 8 March 2007: "Previously she wouldn’t have cared what the maid thought or that she might have hurt her feelings, only now she did and coming back to the chair she wondered why. That this access of consideration might have something to do with books and even with the perpetually irritating Henry James did not at the moment occur to her." –  jitard Jul 1 '12 at 19:16

From OED...

access - 4. The action of coming towards, coming, approach, advance. Contrasted with recess.

...the parents saw the boy's asking for a Meccano set for Christmas as evidence that he was moving towards butch/masculine behaviour, and that their fears of him "growing up gay" were misplaced.

EDIT: I was vaguely aware of the usage before seeing this question, though to be honest I thought it was hopelessly archaic. Apparently not - although usage has rapidly declined over recent decades, it actually peaked around the 30s, so I guess all I can say is it's a bit dated/formal/literary.

EDIT2: I'm now inclined to think Bennett is using the word with OED sense 11...

(fig.) An outburst; a sudden fit of anger or other passion. (Modern, after Fr. accès.)

I suspect this "modern" usage may gain some traction by association with excess, and that in some cases this would be a better choice of word anyway.

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I think the senses under III. A coming to as an addition are more relevant. In literary usage it's always been somewhat ironic or tongue-in-cheek, as it is in the Bennett quote. –  StoneyB Aug 19 '12 at 13:48
@StoneyB: You may well be right, though my OED says that sense is Now almost obs. and replaced by accession. On reflection, I think more likely it's OED sense 11, which I will edit into my answer. –  FumbleFingers Aug 19 '12 at 14:06
Ah, you're clearly using a later edition than I, who have only the 1st edition and '87 supp. I suspect the core sense here was medical, something like 'eruption' or 'paroxysm', employed jocularly in the mid-19th Century and subsequently. –  StoneyB Aug 19 '12 at 16:01

I have never heard this usage before, which for me is pretty unusual. Taking a stab in the dark, I would say that this is almost certainly an archaic, british term.

I say probably archaic, because if it was recently introduced I would probably be familiar with it, while if it was very cutting-edge it wouldn't be in any dictionaries yet.

I say probably british, because britain has a much longer history than america, and thus a preponderance of archaic terms. The social and cultural linguistic traditions are different, and it is very unusual to find a no-longer used american term that isn't also an archaic british term, while the converse is common.

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In Portuguese it is kind of common to make a usage like this. Did Alan Bennett speak/read any latin languages? It is possible that he got used to some form of expression that is commonly used in latin languages and made use of it in english, a use that is uncommon but not wrong, but sounded natural to him.

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I doubt this is anything other than a misspelling for “excess of butchness”.

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I don't think so. It is definitely a legitimate usage of 'access' albeit one I had never heard of before. –  Jim Jun 11 '12 at 5:45
@Jim: it may be a legitimate usage corresponding to a dictionary entry, but it is certainly unrecognizable to most readers. 'Excess' actually makes sense here. So it could be an eggcorn (using a similar sounding word that sorta works), a cupertino a typo suggesting an unexpected word, or a dictionary inspired overcorrection (an anti-eggcorn?). But it is definitely an unexpected use of the word. –  Mitch Jun 11 '12 at 13:27
I'd agree that this was a possibility if the writer were just about anyone other than Alan Bennett (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Bennett) –  JAM Jun 11 '12 at 14:25
@JAM Bennett, Schmennett. Typos creep in: not only into the manuscripts even of legendary writers (many writers depend very much on their copy editors) but also into published editions (when text is rekeyed or "checked" and "corrected" using software tools). For a particularly funny example, see: yro.slashdot.org/story/12/06/01/186216/… –  MετάEd Jun 11 '12 at 18:42
Your faith in Bennett's spelling leads you to conclude that his word choice is highly obscure ... sort of a backhanded compliment :-) ... In any case, there's nothing like facts to resolve a controversy, so I have contacted his editor and posed the question. Maybe we'll get an answer. –  MετάEd Jun 14 '12 at 14:56

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