I read this expression from John Adams by David McCullough,

I quitted my own carriage, and took my seat by his side[she wrote]. We rode on to Bristol, where I had previously engaged a dinner, and there upon the banks of the Delaware, we spent the day, getting into the city at sunset.

This snippet is from Abigail's dairy, documenting her meet with her husband outside Philadelphia. According to Merriam-Webster, "engage" when used as a transitive verb mostly means "attract, hold or hire". It seems I cannot find any fitting definition in this context.

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    RHK Webster's << 2. to secure for aid, employment, or use; hire. >> comes close, but I'm not sure if this is 'taken part in' or 'booked'. OED is probably needed. // Ah, ' Mr. Hemenway came and kindly invited us to dine, but we had engaged a Dinner at Littlefields, so we returned there, dined and' shows it meant 'booked'. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 30 '17 at 14:29
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    Sounds like she reserved a table in a Bristol restaurant or the like. – Yosef Baskin Jul 30 '17 at 14:30
  • engaged=made arrangements for. "I engaged a bubble dancer for his birthday party." – Xanne Jul 30 '17 at 21:16
  • Keep in mind, when you read McCullough's book and those of other historians who mine archives, that the correspondence they find and publish may never have been published before and therefore has not necessarily been perused by the editors of the OED etc. – Xanne Jul 30 '17 at 21:20
  • Here it sounds as "engagement" would, in the sense that it is an event that was secured in advance. -> "A previous engagement held us back, so we ran late. My apologies." – psosuna Nov 28 '17 at 0:22

This is a literal phrase taken from one of John's letters to Abigail

Mr. Hemenway came and kindly invited us to dine, but we had engaged a Dinner at Littlefields, so we returned there, dined and took our Horses to Meeting in the Afternoon...

In this context it seems he means "engaged" to be "accepted". But I mostly wanted to point out that this is one man's phrase from almost 250 years ago, it's hard to say if it was a regional phrase or his personal lingo he used with his wife or a typo or what. I searched "engaged a breakfast", "engaged a lunch," "engaged a dinner", and "engaged a meal" and this letter I linked is the only legitimate hit on the phrase.

I believe McCullough is referencing this ornate phrase as a nod to the letter. It's an Easter egg.

EDIT: I did find this on oxforddictionaries.com, definition 3.2. Seems relevant to the letter quote, but not so much to yours.

dated Reserve (accommodation, a place, etc.) in advance. ‘she had offered to engage a room in the house of the woman’

  • Hello, Patrick. OP indicates tangentially that he is looking for a definition; what you write is anecdotal and a 'comment'. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 30 '17 at 14:36
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    @EdwinAshworth unfortunately that isn't the way that English or any language works. Things have been uttered for which we can only conjecture their meaning - its non-existence in a dictionary did not render it un-utterable. How is this forum to respond to an unanswerable question? By your response, it seems that we should not answer it at all, not even to say it can't be answered. If you think you have a more appropriate answer, please post it. – Patrick Keenan Jul 30 '17 at 14:49
  • I haven't immediate access to OED (which I've already mentioned) which I consider the obvious source for checking on this sense. It may even cite these examples. ELU requires authoritative 'answers' rather than conjecture; conjectures can be offered in 'comments', which don't have the same gravitas. I've given a 'comment' only, for this reason. The 'hire' sense given by RHKW would seem to suggest that 'book' (in today's English) rather than 'accept' is the more likely meaning. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 30 '17 at 14:58
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    I agree it's one man's phrase from almost 250 years ago. I think in this context it seems he uses engaged to mean booked. I think to mean accepted he would have needed have an engagement for – Robbie Goodwin Aug 15 '17 at 14:47

The meaning here for engage is "to arrange to employ or use". It's a rare use nowadays; one used to say, "I engaged a carriage", meaning that you had hired one for a day or two. In the last few decade, it's been mostly reserved for services, although you might "engage a hall" for a big event.

Adams means he had made a reservation for dinner, and perhaps even pre-paid for it.


From the sounds of it this was said in English some 200 years old. But I claim that it's neither archaic, nor particular to this one man's language, nor impossible to know what he was saying. If you look at the number 2 definition in the American Heritage Dictionary:


  1. To arrange for the use of; reserve: engage a room. See Synonyms at book.
    American Heritage Dictionary

Also the second definition in Collins Dictionary

  1. to secure for use; reserve: engage a room.
    Collins English Dictionary

Also the second definition at dictionary.com

2.to secure for aid, employment, use, etc.; hire: to engage a worker; to engage a room.

It simply means "arrange" or "reserve"

All three say "to engage a room." If these modern dictionaries list this use as their second definition, that is, "engage" in the expression "to engage a room", then I see no reason to think why "engage a dinner" should be seen as archaic.

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