5

How has the expression 'well to do' developed the connotation of being 'rich'?

Does anyone know the origin of this expression, which accoring to Merrian Webster, dates back to 1794, while Etymonline dates its usage from 1825.

Well-to-do "prosperous" is recorded from 1825.

5
  • As far as I can tell, it's always had that meaning. What do you mean by "developed"? Oct 7 '18 at 8:44
  • @won suk J daily142857, Before 'developing' to the connotation of being 'rich', had it had another meaning? Oct 7 '18 at 8:55
  • 4
    Perhaps helpful to develop an understanding of "well-to-do": In German, there is a similar phrase "Ihm geht es gut" (him-goes-it-well); this can be used for everything from health over finances to general happyness. Oct 7 '18 at 9:47
  • @ChristianGeiselmann, that is helpful, but, on the other hand, it also makes it that much more puzzling why in English the phrase is idiomatically used only for financial well-being, and not for health, etc., which is what the OP is, I guess, wondering about.
    – jsw29
    Dec 16 '18 at 16:51
  • 1
    Also germane is the question of the rather strange grammatical structure of "well-to-do". Could it be a rather literal translation from another language? "Well-to-do" doesn't seem to relate to any other English phrase. For example, we can't vary the adverb and say, "He is ill-to-do" meaning poor; or "He is slowly-to-learn" (though we can say "He is slow [adjective] to learn"); and we can't change the final verb and say "He is well-to-write".
    – Stephen F
    Apr 20 '20 at 20:31
3

The expression "well-to-do" has always meant rich. The 1794 use of this expression is:

Ann Low told me that her mother lived in the country, and was very well to do.
Old Bailey Proceedings.

Etymonline uses the Oxford English Dictionary as its source. The 1825 date comes from OED2. It wasn't until 2014 that the page was updated (OED3), adding the 1794 quote (among others).

It's also worth noting two earlier expressions that also mean rich:

  • Well to live (earliest attestation: 1568)
  • Well to pass (earliest attestation: 1609)

"Well to pass" comes at least in part from Dutch wel te pas (Middle Dutch wel te passe).

3
  • 1
    To Laurel: that's a useful answer, thank you. What are the sources for "well to live" and "well to pass"?
    – Stephen F
    Apr 20 '20 at 20:18
  • 1
    @StephenF The attestation dates of both come from the subscription only online OED, from the sources I have just edited to add.
    – Laurel
    Apr 20 '20 at 20:40
  • Thank you, Laurel.
    – Stephen F
    Apr 23 '20 at 11:25

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.