When did the word 'want' stop meaning "in need of" or 'lacking' and begin to refer to desire? (Evidence old phrases with the original meaning like: "want for nothing" or "waste not, want not".)

  • 3
    I am now somewhat embarrassed to say that I still use "want" in that context. Dec 11, 2015 at 9:14
  • I haven't found Google ngrams very reliable in that often recent books appear with older timestamps but in any event the phrase "wants vs needs" definitely appears to have become more common since the 1960s. i.sstatic.net/405bg.jpg Dec 11, 2015 at 16:25

2 Answers 2


Not yet.


  1. have a desire to possess or do (something); wish for. "I want an apple" synonyms: desire, wish for, hope for, aspire to, fancy, care for, like; More

  2. (archaic) lack or be short of something desirable or essential. "you shall want for nothing while you are with me" noun

  3. (archaic) a lack or deficiency of something. "Victorian houses which are in want of repair" synonyms: lack, absence, nonexistence, unavailability; More

  4. a desire for something. "the expression of our wants and desires" synonyms: wish, desire, demand, longing, yearning, fancy, craving, hankering;




  1. very old or old-fashioned.


Old doesn't mean dead. Thus, I find the assumption that this meaning has ceased, wanting.

  • 5
    It may be worth pointing out that lack and desire are two sides of the same coin so the meaning hasn't changed all that much. How do you lack something you have no desire for? Bit of Buddhist philosophy in this word. Dec 11, 2015 at 3:20
  • +1 for "Old doesn't mean dead." Something youngsters can usefully bear in mind... Dec 11, 2015 at 11:13
  • 1
    I often need to eat, but have no desire to. I would happily go without food for the rest of my life (it would be rather short, I guess). So, I have a need for something that I do not desire, on a daily basis. The lack comes in when I finally force myself to make dinner and realize that I have to also walk to the grocery store because "the cupboard is bare". At least the walk is pleasant... But that is probably a need also. A huge distinction in common life is Want / Need / Addiction. I say, if you Want (desire) it, then effectively it is a need, because eventually it must be satisfied.
    – user126158
    Dec 11, 2015 at 12:42
  • @CandiedOrange: It seems plausible that's how the modern meaning came about, in fact. People said "I want a place to stay for the night" meaning "I don't have one", but if they had no need or desire for one then they wouldn't bother mentioning it, and so the meaning shades over to "I want a place to stay for the night and I will that I get one". Maybe. Dec 11, 2015 at 15:01
  • 1
    As for the Buddhist philosophy side of things, note that perspectives vary and so the language does distinguish whether something is desirable and whether you actually desire it. "Boy, you want manners", "No I don't, you old fool, I'm perfectly happy without them" ;-) Dec 11, 2015 at 15:03

There is a film short written and directed by Keir Black called I Want for Nothing made in 2008 (but not released yet).

Listen to the song "I Want for Nothing," a 2009 effort of the band Wye Oak.

From the 2000 book Texas Anthem by Kerry Newcomb:

I'll be a good husband to you, Rose. And we'll have a wonderful life. You'll be my queen, I promise, and you'll want for nothing.

The historical change may be acoming, but it's not here yet.

  • @Rathony Thank you. It's also better because that's how it's printed in the book. The first two sentences I had to type; the last two I got to copy and paste. That explains the transcription error but not the proofreading goof.
    – deadrat
    Dec 11, 2015 at 6:32
  • OK, you win: once in a while someone uses the 'archaic' meaning of Want. But 99.9% of the time, people mean desire. This is what I am talking about. Are you any relation to Deadmou5?
    – user126158
    Dec 11, 2015 at 12:44
  • 1
    Not sure I agree that just because it is used in that form in some well-known phrases doesn't mean it's not archaic (not that I disagree with the point in this case, just with the argument itself). "the lady doth protest too much" is still used, but I certainly wouldn't consider "doth" to be current.
    – Voo
    Dec 11, 2015 at 18:50
  • @nocomprende I win? Great! What do I get? Assuming that want for ("I want for nothing"), for want ("for want of a nail"), and wanting ("I find your explanation wanting") are the only uses for what you've called the archaic sense, the Ngram viewer says 95%. (And assuming I can do arithmetic, for which there is some contrary evidence).
    – deadrat
    Dec 11, 2015 at 19:32
  • 1
    'Cept Alice. I'm not as old as Arlo. "Nym" is short for *psedonym"; it's the name you use online, no comprende. The Ngram viewer is books.google.com/ngrams. It finds words and phrases in published books and graphs their frequency of occurrence.
    – deadrat
    Dec 14, 2015 at 2:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.