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Did the word business originally mean “the condition of being busy” as the word busyness currently means?

Why did it change? It was surely a very useful word, since the awkwardly-spelt word busyness has had to be created to take its place.

I think I’m right in saying the i-ness construction is favoured above the y-ness construction in all other similar words – e.g. happiness, friendliness, haziness, merriness.

What really confuses is me is this: Busyness means now what business meant then. Why change an existing word, then create a similar one which means what the old one did? Why not just create a new word? I suspect there’s a story there, and I wonder what it is.

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This is in danger of being closed as general reference: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/business –  Andrew Leach Jul 30 '12 at 8:39
    
@Andrew Leach Please can you specify which part of your link you think answers my question. –  Urbycoz Jul 30 '12 at 8:47
    
Definition 1 answers the first question; the others are surely "It changed to differentiate business (a function or commercial activity) from busyness (the state of being busy)"; and you have answered the last one yourself! –  Andrew Leach Jul 30 '12 at 8:50
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The history of the word is long and complex and not susceptible to a brief summary here. If you're really interested in the etymology of this and other words, I recommend you subscribe to the Oxford English Dictionary: oed.com –  Barrie England Jul 30 '12 at 8:51
    
@Andrew But that is not right. Busyness means now what business meant then. Why change an existing word, then create a similar one which means what the old one did? Why not just create a new word. That's what I'm asking. I'll clarify that in my question. –  Urbycoz Jul 30 '12 at 9:05

1 Answer 1

up vote 7 down vote accepted

“Why change an existing word, then create a similar one which means what the old one did? Why not just create a new word?”

Because, with very few exceptions indeed, language development is not done by a planning committee. Language evolves over time.

According to OEtmD, business is the modern spelling of the Old English bisignes “care, anxiety, occupation,” from bisig “careful, anxious, busy, occupied, diligent”. The meaning of this word eventually evolved to “occupation” and then “trade”. Thoreau may have been the one to coin the modern word busyness to mean “being busy”; he is given credit for the first use of it in 1849.

(This question reminds me of the story I read in an economics book, probably by David D. Friedman or Steven Landsburg: The Russian bureaucrat responsible for setting factory prices for raw materials was visiting the US and asked to meet with his counterpart. He was dumbfounded by the response: there isn’t one. He simply could not imagine a stable situation in which commodity prices were not set by a bureau but instead somehow governed themselves.)

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