1. Why does "used to" mean "accustomed to"?

  2. Why is "used to" used to indicate a recurring past event? In

I used to be used to using it.

there are three meanings of "use". I ask about the etymologies of the two bolded meanings.


5 Answers 5


Each of the three meanings can be paraphrased...

I [was in the habit of being] [accustomed to] [employing] it.

I assume OP wonders about the first meaning, but in reality I think it's just a tautological overlap with the second. It makes for an ugly sentence, to say the least.

The association of used with acclimatised over time, through repeated exposure or use seems unremarkable to me. I imagine the usage could have been re-coined repeatedly before it became a familiar part of normal speech and writing.

The expression used to in the sense of was in the habit of, has been around a very long time, as @Philoto assiduously researched. But originally it was as likely to be the present tense form use to as past tense used to. I think any such present tense usage today is simply by mistake, not in an attempt to convey 'archaic' connotations.

For some reason I can't really explain, the past tense form shot to prominence in the early 1800s. .

  • 2
    I think, OP knows what the phrase "to be used to" means. He asks why, not what.. Please correct me, if I'm wrong.
    – Philoto
    Commented Jul 4, 2011 at 14:43
  • @fumble: I am wondering about both meanings; how did "used to" come to mean those things?
    – Daniel
    Commented Jul 4, 2011 at 14:50
  • @Philoto: Yes, but he asked why about the first two meanings, which I said are basically just unjustified repetition of the same thing. The origin of which I've pointed out seems unremarkable to me. Use, usage, habituation - they're synonyms, not metaphors. Commented Jul 4, 2011 at 14:54
  • @drm65: I think use often implies habitual use, as opposed to utilise or employ which might be a one-time-only thing. So I see nothing odd about the ongoing or regular habit becoming more associated with the word over time (as we get used to the usage! :) Commented Jul 4, 2011 at 15:00
  • 4
    You should know better than to use pre-1800 Ngrams. Tsk tsk.
    – tchrist
    Commented Sep 1, 2012 at 1:19


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest text using "used to" in the context you ask about is Robert Mannyngs "Handlyng Synne 1303." The quote cited is "For ryche men vse comunly Sweryn grete othys grysly." Translated: "For rich men used to commonly swear great, grisley oaths."

It was in "very common use" from around 1400 onward, but today only appears in the past form of "used to." "wont to do" is another archaic expression that carried the meaning of "used to" in reference to habitual activity in the past.

  • @Fumble: You can have a present habit. That is common.
    – Daniel
    Commented Jul 4, 2011 at 16:31
  • @drm65: Actually, I'm going to backpedal a bit and add an NGram to my answer, basically reflecting the underlying point in @Philoto's answer. It does seem that the modern usage became prevalent and decisively switched to past tense in the early 1800s. Commented Jul 4, 2011 at 17:16
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    @drm65: I think @Fumble's answer hasn't got many votes because it doesn't answer the question you asked.
    – user1579
    Commented Jul 4, 2011 at 17:56
  • 1
    @drm65 I can't say I care much about whether my answers are accepted or not :) I'd be glad if it was of some help to someone.
    – Philoto
    Commented Jul 5, 2011 at 7:47
  • @Rhodri: My question was, how did "used to" come to mean "accustomed to"? (which was answered) and how did "used to" come to indicate a past habit? (which was answered). I wasn't really asking for the first sightings of the phrase, which @Philoto was kind enough to find for me. I just thought @Fumble gave me a more coherent idea of the evolution of "used to".
    – Daniel
    Commented Jul 5, 2011 at 11:12

I have no idea, but I will add that, given the long history (14th century onward), it's likely the phrase has undergone a "grammaticalization," much like going to/want to now have "gonna/wanna" for certain, specific uses. I cannot say "I'm gonna the store." So "to be used to sth" might be an offshoot of the original "used to do sth."

Very good question, BTW.

  • 1
    Sorry--I'm new here and probably should have added this to the "comment" section, rather than the answer section. Lesson learned!
    – thad
    Commented Jan 20, 2012 at 21:41
  • voted up to toss a point or two - probably shouldn't have voted it up
    – Tom22
    Commented Jun 9, 2018 at 0:05

This is explained by Columbia Univ Prof. John McWhorter PhD Linguistics (Stanford), in Words on the Move (2016). I quote pp. 109-112 beneath.

Even the way we say used to gives away that more is going on than our simply saying the word use. Imagine someone pronouncing the used to in that sentence as "yuzed to," the way we would pronounce used in She used a pen. But no—to say "She yuuuzed to live in Columbus" would sound distinctly oleaginous; no one would even venture it. The thoroughly correct pronunciation of used to in the sense intended in She used to live in Columbus is "yoosta." One might venture "yoostu" to preserve the pronunciation of the to, but the used part has to be "yoos," not "yooz."
  Used to is, then, something quite different from use. Spell- ing gives away that used to ("yoosta") was once—used to form of use. But it isn't now, and the difference is that

use is a "word" word while used to ("yoosta") is grammar. use is a word meaning to utilize. used to is, on the other hand, a tool we use to express that something happened on a habitual basis in the past. It fulfills a function right along. side the -ed suffix we use to express the simple past: simple past is he talked; the past in a continuous way is he used to talk. To anyone who has taken French or Spanish, this dif-ference will recall the two choices of past in those languages, such as the preterite and imperfect in Spanish: he talked once: habló; he was talking: hablaba. In an alternate universe, English would also have an ending to indicate the 'imper- fect" to parallel the -ed one, but that just happens not to be the way things worked out.
  The path from use to "yoosta" begins with the kinds of changes we saw in the previous chapter, Of the kind that take "blessed" through "innocent" and "weak" to "silly." When it comes to using something, chances are you don't use it just once. Typically one makes use of something regu-larly, over a long period of time—use is something one most readily thinks of as long-term: usage, as it were. That reality hovered over use, to the point that long-term usage (habit) became a secondary meaning of the word. A nice example is Thomas Hobbes in The Leviathan intoning in 1651, "Long use obtaineth the authority of a law," where use could be substituted for by practice or habit. Set phrases of the period such as use and custom and as the use is (which meant "which is the usual") further indicated this new meaning.
  Aware of this meaning, we can more easily understand Late Middle English sentences such as a record from 1550 that one Thomas Casberd has used to set his cart in the street,

(In the actual spelling: "Thomas Casberd hathe vsid to his carte in the streate.") That meant, Mr. Casberd "used," as had the custom of, parking in the street. Or John Milton, in in, 1670, wrote in his history of England about "the English then useing to let grow on their upper-lip large mustachio's."
  So, to an English speaker of this time, use could mean "have the habit of," or to translate into modern slang, "has this thing where he .. ." From here, the path to today's "yoosta" is clearer than if we just start with the "utilize" meaning. Over time, the meaning generalized, such that one could say used to to refer not only to someone harboring a habit, but also to habitual or ongoing things themselves, regardless of who, if anybody, was responsible for them. In 1550, Thomas Casberd has used to set his cart in the street referred to Casberd's having regularly executed an action, and Milton's mustachioed men did that to their faces on purpose. However, She used to live in Columbus doesn't refer to the woman regularly executing the action of living in Columbus, which wouldn't even make sense. It refers to her having lived in Columbus ongoingly. One can now also say something like Based on this data, she used to be the only person with type O blood in the village, when the woman in question didn't even know what her blood type was and/or certainly wasn't performing the action of having that blood type once a day. Her blood type just was what it was, and as some- thing that didn't change, was an ongoing state—hence used to. used to doesn't even have to be about a living being: My cello used to have a richer sound. Cellos don't have customs.
  Used to has gone from meaning "was in the habit of doing" to, well, "yoosta." We use "yoosta" whether the issue is a

deliberate action (He used to ski), a passive state of being (He used to hallucinate), or anything that was ongoing in the past (It used to be easier to find a mailbox, where the "it" in question is too abstract to imagine practicing anything or having hab-its). I liked it the way it used to be—again, how could this abstract "it" do anything habitually in the way that Thomas Cas- berd did? Used to is now not a word but a tool, one that puts a statement into the past habitual: a piece of grammar.*

*This new meaning, practice, yielded another development of use: to practice was to become accustomed, or to accustom Someone else. The mother seal will be seen, a book of natural history noted in 1783, to "use her little ones to live under water," meaning to accustom them to it, not to exploit them. When in 1826 a woman is said to have taken a man and "used him in her company," it can seem rather bawdy unless we know. that the writer meant "accustomed him to her company." Here, then, is the source of the expression to be used to something, quite an oddity meaning of "utilize."

  • Upvote for John McWhorter reference!
    – CivFan
    Commented Jan 12, 2021 at 23:17

“Used to” comes from a French word “usage” meaning something customarily done. So like many French expressions which were co-opted and then corrupted as they were incorporated into English, the meaning became something in the past which was habitually or customarily done over a period of time which ultimately ended- a way to express the “past imperfect verb tense” which English does not have.

  • This would be a great answer with some supporting references.
    – Davo
    Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 13:30

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