'Received' as an adjective is interesting - considering that the past -participle is literal reverse of 'to give':

  • We have received the gift

(someone has given us a gift)

But as an adjective it is only figurative:

  • We speak Received Pronunciation

(we speak a standard, commonly accepted pronunciation

  • Ecclesiastes pronounces received wisdom

(the bible book states wisdom that is conventional or understood by everyone once presented to them)

The OED starts its historical listing of meanings of the adjective with this figurative meaning.

  1. a. Generally adopted, accepted, or approved as true, authoritative, or standard. Frequently in received opinion, received wisdom.

And the OED's first use is:

1440 Promptorium Parvulorum (Harl. 221) 425 Receyvyd, receptus, acceptus.

1543 R. Record Ground of Artes ii. sig. S.viii Procedynge by no grounded reason, but onely by a receaued fourme.

1597 T. Morley Plaine & Easie Introd. Musicke Annot. sig. *4 I am loth to breake a receiued custome.

The difficulty I'm having is with the metaphorical leap. It's a bit of an understated but authoritarian inference: the thing you 'get' is the thing you're supposed to, and you're supposed to follow that as the right thing to get/do. That's a long tortuous abstract semantic path to go from 'I got it'.

I feel like there is a missing link, some intermediary usage.

Is there any evidence of such an intermediary usage, not exactly 'we haughtily presume this is what you follow', but not just the boring literal 'this is the received gift'?

  • 1
    The missing link is who you are receiving it from. In the case of RP, it is the Queen; in the case of the Bible's wisdom, it is God. In that sense, it means "absolutely authoritative", almost as in "revealed truths" (e.g. Revelations). Think of the counterparty of your receiving, the giving, as in given from on high. That which has been granted to us.
    – Dan Bron
    Nov 6, 2017 at 17:01
  • @DanBron Oh...I get the parameters of the metaphorical reading of 'received' (I thought Harry Potter and Hermione Grainger were the exemplars of RP, and the Queen herself speaks a slight variant).
    – Mitch
    Nov 6, 2017 at 17:42
  • Tangentially related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/351872/… which just asks what the meaning of 'received' is in a certain modern text
    – Mitch
    Nov 8, 2017 at 13:55

1 Answer 1


It seems like the distinction existed about as early as the word "receive" entered the English language in the 14th century. The "figurative" meaning described in the question appears to be the meaning defined in the OED under receive in the definitions under branch I, especially I.1.a., whereas the meaning we often think of today is defined in branch IV.

I. To admit or accept (a person or thing).

1. trans.

a. To accept (something) as an authority, rule, or practice; to admit the truth or validity of. Cf. received adj. 1. Now chiefly in religious contexts.

Note the reference in this first definition to the adjectival form. Its first attestation is from 1318, making it among the earliest variations of the word used in English. It contrasts with the definitions under branch IV:

IV. To be given (a thing), have conferred; to experience, suffer, undergo. (In this branch the subject is a more or less passive recipient.)

Branches II and III appear to lie somewhere in the middle:

II. spec. To admit or accept (a person) into one's company; to meet, welcome.

III. To take (in) or accept (something); to permit (something) to be done, submit.

However, the OED offers a note that seems to draw the starkest distinction between I - III and IV:

The principal distinction between the senses of the word in English is that between the more active senses included in the earlier branches and the almost passive ones placed at IV. This distinction, however, is not always clear in actual use, and it is often difficult or impossible to determine which aspect of the word is meant to be prominent in particular instances. Owing to the very extensive use of the verb from the 14th cent. onwards, there is also much overlapping of its various applications, and in many examples it is uncertain whether a specific or merely general sense is intended.

Based on the early uses of sense I.1.a., my interpretation is that there was not exactly a metaphorical leap from one meaning of "receive" to another, but that it was used in different contexts with these two separate meanings since it joined the English language.

To help explain the disparate meanings, OED's etymology notes examine the various meanings of recevoir in French prior to the use of "receive" in English. I've emboldened the portions that seem to carry the "figurative" sense as described in the question (I also emboldened and italicized the first sense because it contrasts with the figurative senses and seems to carry the "literal" meaning).

It seems that this etymological breakdown of recevoir suggests that the distinction in meaning that we see in English existed earlier in French and Anglo-Norman. Perhaps someone can trace the history of the etymons back even further.

French recevoir (second half of the 10th cent. as reciwre )) to welcome (a person), to give shelter to (a person) (second half of the 10th cent.), to take (something given by another person) into one's hands or one's possession (c1050), to have (a blow, wound, etc.) inflicted on one (c1100), to meet, welcome, or greet (a person) in a specified manner (first half of the 12th cent.), to experience (an emotion, e.g. joy) (second half of the 12th cent.), to undergo (baptism) (second half of the 12th cent.), to take (a wife) in marriage (second half of the 12th cent.), (of God) to listen to, hear (a prayer) (late 12th cent.), to suffer, undergo, be subjected to (something painful or unpleasant) (12th cent. in Anglo-Norman), to entertain (a person) (early 13th cent.), to accept (something) as true or valid, to accept (something) as an authority, rule, or practice (early 13th cent. or earlier in Anglo-Norman), to receive (the sacrament of the Eucharist) (first half of the 13th cent. or earlier in Anglo-Norman), to come into possession of (a city or country) (13th cent.), to admit (a person into a profession) (13th cent. or earlier in Anglo-Norman), (of remedies) to be made up of, to contain (13th cent. or earlier in Anglo-Norman), (in astrology) to accept (a planet into another planet's house or exaltation) (13th cent. used reflexively, end of the 15th cent. used passively)

  • Nice. So it seems the meaning may well have been present in Norman French. But between 1066 and 1440, I'm surprised there was no entry under 'received, adj'.
    – Mitch
    Nov 6, 2017 at 17:46

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