I went to use the phrase “eke toward” today, in the sense of “very gradually but increasingly move toward”. I thought this was cromulent, because I’ve heard & used it occasionally in the past. But I could only find it attested pretty rarely online—e.g.:

Notably, most of these citations are recent, so I thought this form might be a recent development. But there is that one citation from the mid-1800s that made me think it might be older, and just rare enough that it’s not well documented, or not trivial to search for. There aren’t any attestations in Google Ngrams, or there are so few that it falls below the searchable threshold.

So my question is: is this a new form, derived from “eke out (a living)” after it became solidified as a set phrase? Or is it an old form, albeit rare, from Early Modern English or Middle English, when “eke” was still a productive verb with the sense of “increasing”, “growing”, or “stretching”? (From which we get the set phrase “eke out”, i.e., to stretch your meager means to last longer.)


Usage dictionaries don’t mention “eke towards” as an old or more recent common compound: ( Fowler's Concise Dictionary of Modern English Usage - A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition - Modern Legal Usage)

According to Garner Modern American Usage the traditional meaning of eke out, that is: “supplement with great effort, make something go further or last longer“, have now been mostly replaced by the current and more common sense of “succeed in obtaining or sustaining a thing with great difficulty”: and notes that

Although this (current) usage began by slipshod extension it is now entrenched as standard.

Unfortunately, by still further extension, sportswriters have come to use eke without its inseparable companion as if it meant something like squeak...eg.

  • actually, you surely noted that northwestern eked (squeaked? fought?) back into the Top 25 to take the last rung on the strength of whipping the mighty Ohaio U. Bobcats” Larry Guest, Orlando Sentinel, 1996

It appears that through the years, “eke” has been used in new, unconventional, related senses of which “eke towards” is probably one. But there is no evidence that eke towards has ever become an established expression.

  • 2
    I agree with Hatchi and would add "OED: eke: a. transitive. To increase, add to, lengthen. Also absol. †neither to eke nor to pair (Scottish): neither to add to nor take from. Proverb, every (also a) little ekes. archaic or dialect. ++1755 T. Smollett tr. M. de Cervantes Don Quixote I. iv. xxi. 377 Without eking or curtailing God's precious truth. ++ 1907 W. C. Hazlitt Eng. Prov. & Proverbial Phrases (new ed.) 24 A little ekes, quoth Jenny Wren, when she pissed in the sea. – Greybeard Apr 26 '20 at 8:50

The evidence from various dictionaries is that the historical use of eke and eke out as a verb has been transitive. The examples @Jon Purdy gives indicate a fairly recent extension to an ergative use, as in eke towards. These seem to me to constitute acceptable literary usage.

Wiktionary (wiktionary/eke) includes a quote from an authoritative author, Thomas Keneally, from his book Shame and the Captives:

Very nearly as a cure for the man's innocence Tengan fired his cannons on him, and as the pilot, doomed and honorable, eked his plane a few metres into the air, both he and it were consumed by a frightful orb of fire.

It would be reasonable to replace eked his plane a few metres into the air with (say) eked his plane towards the sky, but note that this keeps the verb transitive. If you feel uncomfortable using eke towards intransitively, you could add the reflexive pronoun -self/-selves, e.g. eked himself towards the door.

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