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I wonder what would be the logical or historical path that led the phrasal verb "fall out" to mean to have a quarrel? I mean phrasal verbs are not baptized to an action out of the blue, right?

I've checked the phrase on etymonline but couldn't wrap my head around it.

To fall out is by mid-13c. in a literal sense; military use is from 1832. Meaning "have a disagreement, begin to quarrel" is attested from 1560s (to fall out with "quarrel with" is from late 15c.).

In other words how did "fall out" come to mean quarrel?

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    The phrasal verb fall ??? takes many prepositions. He had fallen out [of favour] with his family. Commented Aug 10, 2022 at 19:43
  • @WeatherVane The actual OED has the full story right here, but it’s paywalled. You should have free access via your U.K. library card — presuming you have one. :) Please feel free to provide an actual answer based on what you find there. It’s not a tale that’s at all complicated or hard to understand.
    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 10, 2022 at 19:50
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    @Barmar To 'fall out' may be BrE. It is common in Britland.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Aug 11, 2022 at 8:10
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    Fall out as a verb meaning quarrel is certainly listed in American dictionaries, e.g. Merriam-Webster and Oxford, with no indication it's a Briticism. I guess Barmar just has a more peaceful life than the rest of us.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Aug 11, 2022 at 8:13
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    In the US, we'd say "had a falling out". I don't think "fall out" works in this sense here. I've never heard it. They had a falling out after that incident at the Christmas party.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Aug 11, 2022 at 13:27

2 Answers 2

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Without sources or much of a doubt either way I suggest that this is falling out of line.

Unless the idioms were largely unrelated with the verb to fall, they must have begun with falling to the ground for whatever reason, which disrupts the line: cp. Ger. ausfallen; see also Old Frisian ursittan "to fail to be present", urfaran "pass away, die" for the prefix.


Your source vouches that the idiom is indeed related to the common verb, though I take that with a pinch of salt. Within German we also find ausfällig "verbaly abusive" (chiefly collocated with aspectual werden), vice-versa gefällig, Gefallen "favour", and the (quite recent) research history of the root is difficult.

Maybe Swedish úrfelli "skyfall" or Icelandic úrfellingar "of an omission, of a cut", Dutch vervallen "having no legal force or cogency, invalid" etc. also belong here. Don't make me sort this out. You see, out ~ aus ~ ur and ver- are plausible correspondances (PIE *ud-, *ud-s) but not the only source of ur in the theory formerly known as Urindogermanic (PIE). All they have in common in the latter case would be the intensive reading of out, which might be enough to warrant a calque in English. That makes it fairly difficult to trace. In particular, I think it is quite likely that another root become in some way corrupted, seeing that the reconstruction *h₃orǵʰ-, *h₃erǵʰ- "to copulate" > *argaz* (Kroonen, 2013) suggests probable cause. That'd be OE earg, E. arg, erie, Scotts ergh, erfe, erf (en.Wiktionary). Nowadays we rather fall in love, but German in Liebe verfallen still bears the connotation of temptation, which may be due to French fyr-.

In any event, it is not very difficult to go from failure to perform to an argument about the failure and eventually to a fight, if the initial weakness is seen as a disgrace. Still, one would like to see quotations to prove it.

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    Seems very likely, but straight lines in wars and battles are a modern pattern. One can fall in with any group of people bent on any task (or no task at all), and just as easily fall out with them. Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 20:05
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From what I have researched, the origin is not clear. However, it appears to come from the military (as you have suggested).

Of course, a soldier who would 'get out of line', while in formation, could receive disciplinary action (punishment). While in formation, he is to stay 'in line'. There is a penalty to pay for 'being out of line'

It is no great leap to imagine that usage carrying over into civilian life, as most men during history were under obligation to fight in an army. Or, if not under obligation, a man could gain 'land grants', or 'payment' for agreeing to fight. (Of course, many men have defended their home, land, property and the lives of their loves.)

Since so many men would have had an acquaintance with military phrases, it is easy to see how the phrase 'to fall out' could be used to describe another man behaving badly or incorrectly - and thus need punishment or correction.

For two people to have a 'falling out' with one another could mean that 'each has perceived the other as having behaved badly.'

A long-winded way for me to say, 'They do not get along' or 'They each have a grudge against the other'.

Hope this helps.

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  • The military use is 19th century, but the non-military sense of "to quarrel" is from the 16th century. Your answer would be improved by quoting the research you did.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 16:23

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