The expression to entertain an idea/thought/etc. has perplexed me for a while now. Given the meaning of the verb entertain, I find it quite weird for it to be used in such a way. So, how did this come to be?

  • ..I don't think this is actually a "phrasal verb", more like a verb-noun collocation. Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 17:34
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    Etymonline has it the opposite , that the meaning as "consider" was a little before the usage as "amuse". Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 18:10
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    It seems understandable in a metaphorical sense. You entertain a guest rather than slamming the door in their face. Here, the idea is the same as the guest. In other words, the idea is welcomed and paid attention to. Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 18:34
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    'Entertain an idea' is certainly not a phrasal verb by any of the various definitions in use. It might qualify as an idiom now (a well-known usage, but involving a now unusual sense of a word). As @Cascabel says, it is a verbo-nominal idiom / fixed expression. But Etymon answers the question of etymology. Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 18:54
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    The research should accompany the question (Etymon being a standard reference), and the question switched to 'How did the modern usage of 'entertain' arise?' (assuming Etymon doesn't answer this). Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 19:01

1 Answer 1


In earlier senses, the word entertain can refer to supporting or maintaining something (Oxford English Dictionary, "entertain, v.," I), to holding things together (II), or to receiving or admitting something (III). Many kinds of things can be received or admitted: hosts entertain guests, for instance. Ideas and requests can also be entertained, as def. 9b (grouped under III) suggests:

b. To give consideration to (an idea, request, etc.); to think about, contemplate.

1583 B. Melbancke Philotimus (new ed.) 201 I straightlie inhibit you for your better thriuing, neuer once to enterteine one thoughte of Aurelia.

1605 Bp. J. Hall Medit. & Vowes II. §53 But I will suspect a nouell opinion of vntrueth; and not entertaine it, vnlesse [etc.].

1665 R. Boyle Occas. Refl. ii. xi. sig. P7v Who thinks it not time to entertain thoughts of Death.

Ideas, thoughts, and opinions could all be entertained, that is, considered or contemplated. For instance, in The Secretaries Studie (Thomas Gainsford, 1616; link to 1652 edition), where the speaker describes their own constancy against entertaining a thought of changing their mind:

for why should you giue me any cause of suspition, when a warrant is sealed of our happinesse; or assume to your selfe a counterfeit libertie of trying my patience, when you know i will pul out mine owne heart, before it shall entertain a thought of alteration

The way we most often use entertain now, meaning to engage or amuse (IV), is related to these other three meanings, but they all emerge as distinct meanings fairly early (in the sixteenth century). Taking its literal Middle French meaning entretenir (entre- ~ among, -tenir ~ hold), each modern meaning is only a couple of steps away from holding something. So it's likely that III and IV distinguish themselves at this early moment in time by the kind of object they take; entertaining someone came to refer to holding them in a state of amusement or engagement. Entertaining an abstraction came to refer to holding it in one's thought.

  • Good answer. This is unrelated to the subject matter, but I am curious: Where did the last refrence come from? I found the last part of it very interesting; "when you know i [sic] will pul out mine owne heart, before it shall entertain a thought of alteration".
    – A. Kvåle
    Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 20:09
  • It came from The Secretaries Studie, which I linked to. The context is one lover chastising another for not addressing her with a lavish enough title. All of this is in a book that offers models for composing in various genres like amorous letters and thank you letters. Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 20:31
  • Of course, I had a brain malfunction I guess, and thought it was referring to the lines of text above it. I am sure to check it out.
    – A. Kvåle
    Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 20:41

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