Is it just related to the fact that people participate in it?

UPDATE. Judging by the comments, dictionary articles are absolutely exhaustive, and it just must be obvious to everyone how 'to take the side of' transformed to 'have a good time' without any explanation. Strangely, it's not obvious to me. There is some story behind this shift of meaning, and I can't find this story in the etymological dictionaries. If you know a dictionary that contains it, at least tell me the title of this dictionary.

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    Party: "have a good time," 1922, from party (n.). Earlier as "to take the side of" (1630s). etymonline.com/…
    – user66974
    Commented Dec 21, 2014 at 13:18
  • Party was not used as a verb for "having a good time" until 1909. Was that around the time that the political "parties", conforming to Old French partir "to divide", started planning big national celebrations to pump up their delegates?
    – ScotM
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 2:24
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    Can you tell me the title of this notorious better dictionary to ease the task for my friend? :)
    – thorn
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 18:36
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    @thorn The Oxford English Dictionary. That's about as good as you'll get. ;-) As for the evolution, the etymonline link that Josh gave gives a slightly befuddled description of a relatively clear development: ‘something divided’ -> ‘division/section/side’ -> ‘(political) party’ -> ‘collection of people for a purpose’ -> ‘gathering of people for social purposes’ -> ‘people having fun/place where people have fun’. Commented Dec 23, 2014 at 0:51

3 Answers 3


This is an example of how the meanings of words slide because children do not fully understand the words their parents are using and make guesses based on context.

The sequence probably went something like this:

1) A party means a leader and his followers ("The prince's party.")

2) A party means the group of followers which someone brings with him ("He arrived with a large party.")

3) A party means a group that gathers somewhere and proceeds to another place. ("Now that John was here, the whole party set out for the resturant.")

4) A party means a group of people who meet at some place and stay there. ("I am gathering a party of friends at my house tonight. Would you like to join the party?")

5) Listeners who do not know what a party is guess from context that it means "festivities".

6) A new generation starts using the word to mean a festive occasion limited to those invited.

  • How do you know that the people who started using the new meaning didn't understand the previous one? It could have been their sarcasm towards the words of elevated language, not ignorance.
    – thorn
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 13:33
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    @thorn I believe the change was accidental because the change was so subtle. If your parents say "Please come join our party." but you say "Please come to my party." would anyone even notice and wonder why? All of these examples are drawn from ordinary conversations in 19th and early 20th century novels, not from elevated language. They sound pretentious today because they are very old-fashioned. Ordinary expressions can't become pretentious-sounding (and targets of sarcasm) until most people stop using them.
    – David42
    Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 3:03

Here is the relevant part of the discussion of party in Ernest Weekley, An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1921):

party. Represents both F. partie, p.p. fem. of partir, to divide, and parti, p.p. masc. Usual F. senses are partie, part, parti, party, faction, but they have become much mixed in E. Sense of friendly gathering is partly due to F. partie, game, excursion, etc. Slang sense of individual, e.g. nice old party, arises from earlier leg. sense as in guilty party, i.e. side, to be a party to, etc.

So according to Weekley, three French words were influential in the emergence of party in the sense of "friendly gathering": parti meaning "faction," partie meaning "part," and partie meaning "game or excursion."

The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories (2002) has this:

party [Middle English] The early use of party was to refer to a body of people united in opposition to others, as well as specifically to a political group. It comes from Old French partie, based on Latin partiri 'divide into parts'. The sense 'social gathering' dates from the early 18th century.

Neither Weekley nor Oxford seems at all surprised by the historical changes that saw party in the sense of a political gathering born of opposition to something expand to include a social gathering for nonpolitical purposes and from there grow to mean also a friendly gathering where hors d'oeuvres and alcoholic beverages are consumed.


My first exposure to "party" being a group of people doing something was Dungeons and Dragons. 2nd Edition to be precise. I was 8 or 9, so it was a learning experience to find out that "party" could mean a group of people doing something, rather than an event at a fixed location that had people having fun with cake and presents.

In Dungeons and Dragons, and almost all RPGs (Role Playing Games), a party is defined as the group of character(s) doing the adventuring in-game. Therefore, "The Party" is comprised of 4 - 6 characters that adventure, gain experience and act out in the game world, engaging in whatever RPG system the players (the real people) are playing in.

I don't know if too many other people would have had similar experiences, but I do know that in the past 20 years since then, Dungeons and Dragons has had an explosion in popularity and moved from "Satan's game" to an accepted form of entertainment, so there are likely a few others in the same boat. How many? I couldn't say. However, other RPGs may have brought about similar phenomenon; both table top RPGs and traditional RPGs.

  • Welcome to ELU. An example of how D&D actually used party would be a far more useful second paragraph. Can you give any examples?
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Apr 1, 2015 at 18:27
  • Good point. I added a description. Oh sweet, I can add comments now. Woot! Commented Apr 1, 2015 at 18:50
  • You can always comment on your own posts. Commenting on other people's requires 50 rep.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Apr 1, 2015 at 19:12

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