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I had always supposed that the expression make do(with) was the short for the idiomatic expression make do and mend. The case appears to be quite the opposite; Ngram shows usages of "make do (with)" from the beginning of the 20th century, while the latter expression clearly originated later, during WWII. The following usage example is from Homes and Gardens (1930):

  • Make do with inexpensive furniture and renew it piece by piece later, if necessary. But start with a good carpet if you would have your room thoroughly lovable and liveable.

The Grammarist suggests that "make do" is actually the short for another, probably once commom, expression, but it does not provide futher evidence:

  • make [something] do well enough, where do carries the rare sense to serve a specified purpose. So this do is similar to the one used in sentences such as, “I could use a cup of coffee, but tea will do.”

Then we have also the nominal expression make-do which refers to the same concept and, according to Dictionary.com, dates back to the end of the 19th century (1890-1895).

(Cambridge Dictionary, Dictionary.com)

Questions:

  • Where does the verbal expression "make do" come from? Is it derived from the nominal and apparently earlier term "make-do"?

  • What is "do" in "make do" from a grammatical perspective, a verb, and adverbial form or what?

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    This is the first time this American speaker has encountered "the idiomatic expression make do and mend." There is an American fixed phrase I've often heard, make and mend; but no do. I would guess it's British or at least Commonwealth only. – John Lawler Dec 15 '16 at 15:05
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    @JohnLawler - M-W says " make and mend" is British too, if that is the expression you are referring to: a period (as an afternoon) given the hands on a ship for work on their clothing or as a period of leisure without set duties : half-holiday <make and mends were granted in celebration of the royal birthday> merriam-webster.com/dictionary/make%20and%20mend – user66974 Dec 15 '16 at 15:09
  • Right. That's a context I encountered it in. But I know nothing about English language use in WWII. – John Lawler Dec 15 '16 at 15:16
  • A wild guess would be that it comes from the French faire avec (which is both make with and do with). Since faire means both make and do, perhaps English speakers picked it up as sort of make/do with (make or do with). – Drew Dec 15 '16 at 15:24
  • The WW2 usage is explained in the link which the questioner supplies. To answer the second question - 'Do' is a verb, and the phrase means 'make what is available do for [serve the purpose of] the item you really wanted'. – Kate Bunting Dec 17 '16 at 10:23
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+100

When did the expression arise in its idiomatic sense?

Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms ((1997) has this entry for make do:

make do Get along with the means available, especially insufficient means. For example, We'll just have to make do with one potato apiece. {c. 1900}

Ammer is certainly correct about the sense of this set phrase, but make do (often followed by the preposition with) goes back at least to the middle of the nineteenth century in the United States and in Australia. Here are the first eight instances returned in an Elephind search of early newspapers. From the Keowee [Pickens Court House, South Carolina] Courier (August 4, 1849):

BEET ROOT VINEGAR.—Many families purchase their vinegar at a very considerable annual expense; some "make do" with a very indifferent article; and others for a want of a little of knowledge and less industry, go without.

From "Greenhouse in Winter," in the [St. Clairsville, Ohio] Belmont Chronicle (March 18, 1853):

My plants soon showed by their new aspect, that I was not wrong in my believing it [sponging the plants' leaves with slightly warm water early in the morning] to be the real secret of my neighbor's success.—They began to look brighter, healthier, and grow and bloom better than my utmost care had ever been able to make do before.

This example is interesting because the sense here is "make them do"—with the pronoun dropped.

From "Commissariat," in the [Perth, Western Australia] Inquirer (September 21, 1853):

The Principle Commissariat Officer will receive Sealed Tenders (in duplicate) until 12 o'Clock on SATURDAY, the 24th Instant, for the supply of the undermentioned Articles, required for the Convict Service and to be delivered to the Commissariat Officer in Charge at Fremantle, viz.:—

For Fremantle—

Aprons, Leather, or skins to make do.—12

This example—the first from Australia—is also a bit out of the ordinary for the set phrase; it seems to refer to "skins" and to mean something like "serve in the place of leather aprons." Ace researcher JEL notes in a comment below that "make do." here may not mean "make do" at all but may instead be an abbreviated form of "make ditto"—so that the line has the following sense:

Aprons, Leather, or skins to make Leather Aprons.—12

Strengthening JEL's contention is the fact that none of the other items in the lengthy commissariat list ends with a period before em dash and following quantity.

The remaining five examples, however, possess the same sense of the phrase as the 1849 example I began with, which is (to repeat Ammer) "get along with the means available." From the "The Wheat Buyers Attorney," in [Red Wing, Minnesota] Goodhue Volunteer (July 2, 1862):

When we exposed the base combination of some of the wheat buyers of this place, to cheat the honest farmer and ruin the reputation of the city, an instinct of self defence suggested to them that they ought to make some reply ; and being too far gone in crime to harbor, for a moment the idea of confession and repentance, and being too ignorant to reply in any manner themselves, they resorted to the only alternative left, viz : to employ an attorney to do their dirty work for them. But the question was, who would take the job. There was but one in town mean enough to do it, and he didn't know enough to do it well. Nevertheless, as he had a good idea of his own ability, and was, withal, candidate for the judgship of this district, they thought they would make do with him. And inasmuch as he was interested in the swindling operation they thought he would put forth extra efforts.

From "Water Police Court: Violent Death of Henry Kinder: Charge of Murder," in the Sydney [New South Wales] Morning Herald (December 7, 1865), page 6:

I have done, it makes me sick when I think of these things. I am doing no business, one solitary half-a-crown this day ; but it rained hard all day so I could not expect people to come out in such weather. I was at work all day and night at my Figian. I cast him this time in six pieces and five of them are sufficiently correct to make do, but I shall have to make a new body, that being the imperfect face; it was twenty minutes to 2 before we left the workshop, so I am too fatigued to write.

From a letter by W. C. Sanders to the editor of the [Adelaide] South Australian Register (February 22, 1871):

South Australia has given birth to the Northern Territory; but instead of having a good doctor at first she made do with a midwife and idle servants, and it is a great mercy the little stranger was not strangled or killed by neglect at birth ; and now, like a bad mother, she would neglect her fine baby and let strangers feed it with a spoon instead of suckling it herself. All the sunny little creature wants is good nursing and a mother's breast. If she does this she will be proud of her boy one day.

From a letter by Thos. Hardy to the editor of the [Adelaide] South Australian Register (December 1, 1874):

Many persons seem to think (judging from their writings) that it is a matter of regret that selectors under the new land laws do not set about making more permanent improvements in the way of building better houses, planting gardens, &c., &c.—shaping as if they meant to settle down for life in their new homes ; but it appears to me that the selectors are wiser in their day and generation than these, and, learning from the dearly-bought experience of many in the old districts, are more for making do with as little as is absolutely necessary until they see who is to stop and who move on further.

From "General News," the [Balranald, New South Wales] Riverina Recorder (January 18, 1888):

The Governor of New Zealand draws £7,000 and Major Atkinson thinks that as clerks in the service are to lose £40 and £50, equitable proportion will be maintained by taking £2,000 from His Excellency[.] Ministers of the Crown are pruned next, and members of Parliament at present receiving £210 are to be made do with a poor £120. That is tho spirit of retrenchment that is wanted, but looks as if it will her wanted' long in Now South Wales.


Where did it come from?

One possible source of "make do" is as a short form of "make it do." Writers have used "make it do" in a similar sense to "make do" at least as early as 1851. From T.S. Arthur, "Time, Faith, Energy," in the [Sumterville, South Carolina] Sumter Banner (May 28, 1851):

"O! yes, She's as cheerful as a lark all the day.'

"And doesn't murmur because of your tight wages?'

'No, indeed! not she. I believe if I didn't earn more than three dollars a week, and I kept sober, she would make it do somehow or other, and keep a good heart. It's wonderful how much she is changed!'

And from a letter from Mrs. Judson to Mr. Fletcher dated December 14, 1853, reprinted in the [New York] Daily Tribune (March 1, 1855):

Your "analogous case" is a very extreme one; but still, by a supposition or two, we may make it do."

Neither of these instances is exactly equivalent to "make do" in its idiomatic sense, but both seem to express something similar—"make it suffice" rather than "make [to] suffice." Still I think that the two expressions may be closely related. The biggest challenge (and one that I can't adequately answer) is to explain how, in the 1849 instance, when the writer deemed "make do" odd enough to justify putting quotation marks around it, it already exhibited the fully formed "make do with X" construction that it commonly possesses to this day.

  • See Glossary for "do.: abbreviation for ditto; the same". It's frequent noise in 'make do' searches in the 19th. – JEL Dec 21 '16 at 6:25
  • ...as in your 1853 Australian example. – JEL Dec 21 '16 at 17:36
  • @JEL: Is "do." standing in for "ditto" there? It's the first entry in the commissariat list—so if it is short for "ditto", I think the ditto would have to be referring to "Aprons, Leather" earlier in the same sentence. That's not impossible, of course, but it isn't the way people in the U/S. normally use ditto marks (") today. But is that how you read the sentence? Either way, the example seems quite unlike any of the others I cite above. – Sven Yargs Dec 21 '16 at 18:18
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    Yes, the "do." abbreviation stands in for "Aprons, Leather" there (read "do." as "same"). It is used variously in the 18th and 19th--sometimes in a layout to fall under the dittoed item (as we use the ditto mark today), sometimes merely as a backreference. Some of the uses are quite hard to interpret, as one where the wages of tailors were compared to the costs of materials to make a type of button (1767). – JEL Dec 21 '16 at 18:26
  • @SvenYargs do you think this is same or different meaning: in Reynold's Code, 7.895 was "You must make do", "I must make do", "We must make do". books.google.com/… This is an 1855 version. – DavePhD Dec 21 '16 at 18:41

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