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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 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

7 Answers 7

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: (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. 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

Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) suggests that the relevant senses of access are the oldest ones:

access n {ME, fr AF & L; AF acces, fr. L accessus approach, fr. accedere to approach — more at ACCEDE} (14c) 1 a : ONSET 2 [that is, "BEGINNING, COMMENCEMENT"] b : a fit of intense feeling : OUTBURST

To illustrate the rise and and fall of access in the sense of "onset" our "outburst," here is the Ngram chart for "an access of" for the period 1800–2005:

According to this chart, the heyday of "an access of" was approximately 1890 to 1930.

Here are a few representative Google Books matches for the phrase. From Abraham Rees, The Cyclopædia, Or, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature (1819):

ACCESS, in a general sene, signifies the approach of a thing toward another.

In which sense, access stands opposed to recess.


ACCESS, in Medicine, denotes a fit, or return of some periodical disease.

We say an access of the gout, but especially of an ague, an intermitting fever, an epilepsy, &e. an access of madness; sometimes also a prophetical access, a cold access, &e. Access is frequently confounded with Paroxysm: but they are different things ; an access being frequently the beginning or first onset of a disease, a PAROXYSM is the height of it.

From Mary Forrest, Women of the South Distinguished in Literature (1861):

And yet a wave of the mesmerizer's hand will bring the subject back from the higher to the lower every-day consciousness where all that he has been saying and doing in his somnambulic state is an utter blank! Another wave of the hand, or an access of natural somnambulism, intirely independent of mesmerism, and lo! all the knowledge of the former state is restored, as if a curtain had been lifted.

From Edgar Rice Burroughs, Pirates of Venus (1934):

As I stooped and put my arms about the corpse to lower it into the grave, I was astounded to discover that it was quite warm. This put an entirely new aspect on the matter. A man dead for eighteen hours should be cold. Could it be that Kamlot was not dead? I pressed an ear to his chest; faintly I heard the beating of his heart. Never before had I experienced such an access of relief and joy. I felt as one reborn to new youth, to new hopes, to new aspirations. I had not realized until that instant the depth of my loneliness.

And from Richard Wolheim, The Thread of Life (1986):

A thought of some kind about the father, an access of rage against someone or other occurs, and it engages with the disposition of anger in just the same way as the perception of the father did, and to the same effect: there is a manifestation of anger against the father, which is an access of rage.

I've come across this sense of access in books for years, and to my U.S. ear it sounds perfectly normal and contemporary in such phrases as "an access of caution." But that may say more about me and my reading habits than about the currency of the word in this sense.

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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 ( – 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:… – 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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