I looked up the word "start" recently on Merriam-Webster's online dictionary, and I seem to remember that the order of definitions is historical: the first historical definition comes first, followed by the next, et cetera. That is precisely why I was surprised to see the first definition given before the rest. I would have assumed that the verb "start" originally meant "to begin". But these definitions seem to imply that the other sense of the word, to "suddenly" and "briefly" make an "involuntary movement", comes first.

Thus, to make myself clearer, I would have assumed that the verb "to start" originally meant "to begin", but the order of definitions given seems to say that the verb "to start" originally meant "to move suddenly and violently : spring".

Are my observation and conclusion correct? Does the order of definitions indeed follow historical order, and does this indeed imply that the verb "to start" originally took the more uncommon definition of "to move suddenly and violently"?

  • 1
    The Oxford English Dictionary is very useful for questions like this. (Maybe you have free access to the online OED through your local or school library?) The answer is yes, all of the oldest senses of "start" have to do with sudden movement or change. The meaning "begin" came much later. – bof Jan 7 '18 at 6:18
  • @bof Interesting! I suppose that before "start" became synonymous with "begin", people just used "begin". – ktm5124 Jan 7 '18 at 6:22
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    The OED is not a free source while Etymonline is easily accessible: Start (v) From "move or spring suddenly," sense evolved by c. 1300 to "awaken suddenly, flinch or recoil in alarm," and by 1660s to "cause to begin acting or operating." Meaning "begin to move, leave, depart" (without implication of suddenness) is from 1821. The connection probably is from sporting senses ("to force an animal from its lair," late 14c.). Transitive sense of "set in motion or action" is from 1670s; specifically as "to set (machinery) in action" from 1841. etymonline.com/word/start – user240918 Jan 7 '18 at 7:18

According to the OED the answer is yes, the original meaning of start, dating back to Old English, is under branch I.:

To (cause to) make a sudden movement, and related senses.

The earliest definition provided, cited in Old English:

To leap, jump; to caper, cavort; (also) to leap or spring upon a horse. Also fig. Obs.

The second branch II means "to begin," and the OED includes a note indicating that it developed as a figurative extension of the earlier meaning.

Apparently of very limited currency other than with reference to physical motion (see sense 18) before c1830; early examples appear to be isolated figurative or extended uses of senses in branch **I.*

So the use of "start" to mean "begin" in a literal sense is as recent as the 19th century.

Following the dating in that note, the last "isolated figurative or extended use of branch I" is from 1787:

If Musicians miss but half a bar, Just like an Irishman she starts to bother.

  • 1787 J. Wolcot Ode upon Ode (ed. 7) 43

We can see how this is somewhat similar to "start" meaning "to move or react abruptly" and variants of that sense.

The next citation appears to be a purely literal one, from 1827.

After some little further conversation, I started to do my business in the register's office.

  • 1827 Torch Light & Public Advertiser (Hagers-Town, Maryland) 1 Mar.
  • 1
    Ah, an answer from Chicago for a question from Chicago :-) – ktm5124 Jan 8 '18 at 18:49

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