What has way been doing in always all this time?


always (adv.)
mid-14c., contraction of Old English phrase ealne weg "all the time; quite, perpetually," literally "all the way," with accusative of space or distance, though the oldest recorded usages refer to time; … Meaning "every time" is from early 13c.

If literally the reference is to "space or distance," how did "the oldest recorded usages refer to time"? (Note the "oldest": it's not even like it has evolved/ changed later, it's always been so.)

To conjecture that it was on the lines of "all the way" (from one end to the other of; in or to every part of) would still leave you in the space-distance realm.

Some sources include the meaning "all the while." However, the etymological root weg is distinct from that of while, which is OE hwīl instead.

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    The PIE root is *wegh-, which is a motion word. When motion is involved, space and time are interrelated. She lives three days away is the sort of thing anyone might say, in any language, if the means of travel is presupposed, as it almost always is. Since English has so few words that refer exclusively to time (during, endure, duration, when, then, now), almost all our time references are metaphoric, and spatial metaphors are quite common. Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 0:16
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    @JohnLawler Thanks, Prof., also for the reference. That's more of an answer.
    – Kris
    Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 9:43
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    I suggest that by definition, that's about Old English and never about English… Commented Nov 24, 2018 at 18:45
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    Huh, @RobbieGoodwin ? What is about OE?
    – Kris
    Commented Nov 25, 2018 at 9:12
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    It's well-established in linguistics that spatial metaphors are commonly used with temporal reference, although each language has its own unique strategies for doing so. See e.g. Lakoff 1993, "The contemporary theory of metaphor". Commented Nov 25, 2018 at 18:04

2 Answers 2


I think this question deserves some attention.

No answer coming will probably be very satisfying. What is involved is idiomatic English of a very old sort. The question references ealne weg which seems the oldest available form of this idiom.

The main issue with this idiom is weg. The Latin cognate, via, had similar meanings with the Anglo-Saxon dialects as indicating a route, road or means. But it is clear that in at least some Anglo-Saxon dialects weg had taken on usage distinct from simple known definitions.

Those A-S dialects had a term for "always", simble and other similar words. Obviously this is a cognate with the Latin semper. Latin and the Romance Languages retained semper, but simble seems lost in current English.

Why "all ways" survives today and simble has been lost is a question I cannot answer. But this is no isolated language incident. We have almost and already among others with similar construction. These "single word idioms" were codified when Anglo-Norse and Anglo-Norman were merging to form the language we know today. One can guess that intercommunication played a part in why always survives. But I cannot point to a mechanism that caused that.

I think it fair to say that always is good, honest English, and old in the language. What is unsatisfying is that a search for the origin of always does not meet a dead end, but a dead beginning. There is really no telling what the origin of the expression is, nor how old it is. One could guess that some grammatical function in some Northwest Germanic dialects allowed a form of "all ways" to mean the same as "always" in current English, but, now, that could only be a guess.


Just an idea: in many southern German dialects, the word "oiwei"/"alleweil" still exists. Sounds very similar to and has the same meaning as "always", and it has been in wider use for centuries. It literally translates to "all whiles", which would put it in the temporal context the English word lacks.

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    A great help in furthering the etymological search. Could be even more so if we could find some reliable source(s) supporting and furthering this plausible argument.
    – Kris
    Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 15:03

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