If you are doing something without assistance you can be said to be doing that thing on your own.

Cambridge defines the phrase as follows:

On your own

If you do something on your own, you do it without help from anyone else: Bridget learned to tie her shoes on her own when she was three.

The phrase is also used to simply indicate that you are alone.


I am on my own

I am interested to know how this phrase came about.

The following entries are listed for 'on' as a preposition in Oxford Living Dictionaries:

  1. Physically in contact with and supported by (a surface).
  2. Forming a distinctive or marked part of the surface of.
  3. Having (the thing mentioned) as a topic; about.
  4. As a member of (a committee, jury, or other body).
  5. Having (the thing mentioned) as a target, aim, or focus.
  6. (often followed by a noun without a determiner) having (the thing mentioned) as a medium for transmitting or storing information.
  7. In the course of (a journey).
  8. Indicating the day or part of a day during which an event takes place.
  9. Engaged in.
  10. Regularly taking (a drug or medicine).
  11. Paid for by.
  12. Added to.

The possible options as far as I can tell for how 'on' is acting in this phrase from the above list are: 3 or 5. But none seem a perfect fit.

3. Having (the thing mentioned) as a topic; about.

The example given in the dictionary is:

‘a book on careers’

In the phrase on your own, perhaps the point is you are your own subject matter? It hardly seems a perfect fit for usage however and would be some kind of metaphorical use of yourself as your own subject matter.

5. Having (the thing mentioned) as a target, aim, or focus.

The example given is:

'five air raids on Schweinfurt’

‘thousands marching on Washington’

‘her eyes were fixed on his dark profile’

Perhaps 'on' is indicating that you are the aim, focus, or target of your own attention? Again it hardly seems like the same kind of usage.

My question is, what is the etymology of the phrase "On my/your/own own"?

In your answer you might address some or all of these points:

  • How is on acting in the phrase?
  • Cambridge states the use is idiomatic, when was it first used?
  • How did it come to take on its present meaning?
  • How does it differ from "on a horse"?
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 24, 2017 at 11:00
  • With on a horse there is a clear object (the horse) that something is on top of, the use has a physical connotation. That doesn't seem to the case here, or at least if the connotation is physical I don't think it's altogether as obvious what the meaning is.
    – Gary
    Apr 24, 2017 at 11:01
  • 3
    So the object is partially elided. May have been "on your own resources" or some such.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 24, 2017 at 11:03
  • Most likely developed from an expression like "your own devices".
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 24, 2017 at 12:13
  • You're dwelling too much on the single word on, which is very broad (consider on time, on the subject of...).
    – Chris H
    Apr 24, 2017 at 13:35

3 Answers 3


"On my own" has been a phrase for a long time, for example:

I have suffered one on my own — A Spy on the Conjurer, 1725

Often there is erasure of the object, to prevent repetition:

Another's age, shall hasten on my own — The life of Alexander Pope, 1769

So no doubt the stand alone phrase is a growth from the erased type.

The OED has the phrase going back as far as 1404:

The Comunes desiren that the Kyng shulde leve upon his owne.

Where upon and on are synonymous in this context.

The two meanings the OED gives for the phrase are:

a. In to live on (also upon) one's own: to live on one's own resources. Obs.
b. On one's own initiative, account, etc.; (now usually) alone, unaccompanied; by oneself.

b's meaning has examples going back to 1895.

Given meaning b, on's meaning seems to have evolved from the meaning as in "on my honour", which is about hands being on a bible.

From the OED's entry for on:

With or as with the hands touching (a bible, etc.), in making an oath; using or invoking as the basis of an oath, affirmation, etc.


The idiomatic expression is from the mid 20th century:

On one's own

By one's own efforts or resources, as in:

  • He built the entire addition on his own. [Mid-1900s ]

Responsible for oneself, independent of outside help or control, as in:

  • Dave moved out last fall; he's on his own now. [Mid-1900s ]

(The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary)

Early usage examples:

From Maryland farmer: (1943)

  • Captain Eddie Rickenbacker says: "Once you put a boy in a foxhole, he is on his own. Once you drop a parachute trooper behind the enemy's lines, he is on his own. The youth in the cockpit of a fighter, in a tank, on a commando raid, is always ...

From On-the-farm-training for Veterans:(1947)

  • ...the rest of the time he is on his own following the projects which have been assigned to him in order to make a report to the instructor when he comes the next week. Senator Morse.

Could it be that ‘own’ is Old English ‘an’ meaning one. The original pronunciation of ‘an’ is preserved in ‘alone.’ On my one seems to convey the meaning of the phrase.

  • 3
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