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Every now and then - usually when talking with an older individual or someone from the United States Midwest or South - I hear the word "spell" used to mean a short period of time, such as: "Come sit down and rest a spell." I've also heard it used as a verb, like, "When Pete arrives he will spell Tito, who has been working since dawn."

What is the history and origins of this meaning and use of the word spell? And is it a colloquialism or can it be used in more formal settings?

  • I don't know where I learned it, but I used it the other day when I had two people at the same table at a school carnival and I said they could spell each other. I meant that one could work while the other took a bathroom break, etc. They didn't know what it meant. I'm in my 40's, so maybe I just read a lot. – Likes words Apr 21 '17 at 23:19
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Merriam-Webster gives the origin of this meaning as "probably alteration of Middle English spale substitute, from Old English spala."

The Online Etymology Dictionary says the first recorded use of spell to mean an "indefinite period of time" is in 1706.

Also, M-W does not list this usage of spell as a colloquialism or slang, so I think it's appropriate for formal writing, wherever it is appropriate to use such a vague word.

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    spell seems folksy when used alone -- "Come over here and sit a spell." -- but much less so when used to cover a specific period of performing a specific task -- "When Bob got tired of conning the boat, I took a spell at the wheel." – Malvolio Jul 31 '11 at 19:07
  • @Malvolio There is the non-human usage too (at least in BrE) where we speak of "We had a spell of fine weather" or, perhaps less commonly, "There was a spell of political uncertainty" or "He underwent a spell of unemployment". In that case it seems to me that the period in question is usually defined by conditions over which the person or people experiencing them have little or no real control. It is very rare to hear "Come and sit for a spell" in the UK, it sounds not only folksy and old fashioned but also rather American, the "Take a spell at the wheel" usage, however is quite common here. – BoldBen Apr 22 '17 at 5:51
  • @BoldBen Or even more commonly, we talk of a dry spell, both meteorologically and figuratively. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 27 at 17:01
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Very true, we talk ask about dry spells in that way. However "a spell of" something or "a <something> spell" seems different from "taking a spell at" or "spelling someone" since the duration of the first two is unknown and not under the individual's control but in the second the duration is either known from the start or is under the individual's control. "Sit a spell" seems to fit into the second category to me. – BoldBen Feb 28 at 19:53
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To answer the latter part of your question "When Pete arrives he will spell Tito, who has been working since dawn."

Spell: "work in place of (another)," Old English spelian "to take the place of," related to gespelia "substitute," of uncertain origin. Perhaps related to spilian "to play" (see spiel). Related: Spelled; spelling. The noun meaning "indefinite period of time" first recorded 1706.

From here

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Not sure if it's related, but putting a horse out to pasture for a break from work (for weeks, months) is referred to as a spell or spelling.

  • Interesting - I didn't know that. – Jesse Williams Feb 27 at 15:26

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