In Boswell's London Journal (1762-3), the author expresses the past tense of the verb eat with the same spelling:

I sat in till between four and five. I then went to Holborn, to a cheesemonger's, and bought a piece of 3 lb. 10 oz., which cost me 14 1/2d. I eat part of it in the shop, with a halfpenny roll, two of which I had bought at a baker's. [emphasis mine]

This makes me wonder at the pronunciation, as I have wondered before. When I first read the journals back in college, I mentally pronounced them the way we say the current present tense verb. Then I decided he must have pronounced it /ˈeɪt/ rhyming it with ate. So far so good.

Now I wonder if the word might have been pronounced /ˈɛt/ (rhyming with bet) the way some British and rural Americans have it.

The word eat itself comes from OE etan by way of ME eten, which would suggest that it might have at least for some time rhymed with ate.

Note too the past tense of some verbs are identical in spelling to the present tense (e.g., read/read), though pronounced differently.

Can someone cast a bit of light on this?

  • 2
    The historically justified variant is ate homonymous with eight, and therefore it does not come as a surprise that the colonists took this old pronunciation to the New World. The origin of the pronunciation et for “ate” is not quite clear. There may have been the Middle English form ēt, which underwent shortening. Since both variants have been known in England for centuries, their coexistence in America need not surprise us either.blog.oup.com/2019/12/some-of-our-basic-verbs-eat
    – user 66974
    Commented May 22, 2023 at 16:39
  • 3
    Fascinating! Reading 'ate' I say (BrEng) both /ɛt/ and /eɪt/ depending on context (textual and social). "Is there any cake left?" "No, I ate it all yesterday". 'Eat' pronounced /ɛt/ sounds very plausible
    – Dan
    Commented May 23, 2023 at 14:08

3 Answers 3


Yes, eat (pronounced /it/ and possibly /ɛt/) was a past tense form of "eat" in English until the 1800s and more recently in Scotland.

The OED lists a range of past tense forms of eat. The relevant ones are

1500s–1600s eate, 1600s–1800s eat, 1500s– ate

So "eat" (/it/) was a past tense form of "eat" in Boswell's time, although "ate" was also possible.

The OED also suggests the non-standard past-tense form "et" (/ɛt/) may relate to "eat" rather than "ate", by analogy with other past tense forms "read" (/rɛt/), "led" (from "lead"), etc.

The OED does not give a geographical range for the variants. The Scottish National Dictionary has citations of the /it/ form as late as the 20th century, including from Aberdeen in 1925

Peter, my neeper, mairriet a wife An' cudna keep 'er, He stappit her intull a bole i' the wa', An the mice eet 'er.

This uses the spelling "eet" rather than "eat" but spelling in Scots is considerably more varied.

James Boswell was of course a Scot, born in Edinburgh.

  • Should that top line read "1500-1600s, 1600-1800s, 1800s-" ?
    – MadHatter
    Commented May 23, 2023 at 8:18
  • 1
    I think you mean /rεd/ for read, since English does not generally have terminal devoicing. // @MadHatter No, it’s correct the way it is. It means that the spelling eate is attested in the 1500s and 1600s, the spelling eat is attested in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s, and the spelling ate is attested from the 1500s onwards. Commented May 23, 2023 at 13:30
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I am grateful for the clarification; thank you.
    – MadHatter
    Commented May 23, 2023 at 14:40

Yes. In addition to the answer citing the Oxford English Dictionary, Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1755) also lists both ate and eat as the preterite (past tense) form of eat:

To EAT. v.a. preterite ate, or eat; part. eat, or eaten. [etan, Sax. itan, Gothick; eich, Erse.]

As for pronunciation, in John Walker's A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791) (found in Eighteenth Century Collections Online; subscription needed), he claims that to eat is pronounced with a long /i/ but that the past tense form is usually pronounced et (/ɛt/):

The first sound of ea is like open e, and is heard in the following words: - Afeard, anneal, appeal, appear [...] easy, to eat, eaten, eaves [...] (p. 28)

The preterimperfect tense of eat is sometimes written ate, particularly by Lord Bolingbroke, and frequently, and, perhaps, more correctly, pronounced et, especially in Ireland; but eaten always preserved the ea long. (p. 29)

  • 4
    As a BrE speaker I do pronounce 'ate' as 'et'. Commented May 22, 2023 at 17:35
  • Eich is a truly bizarre way to write the Irish verb, which has been written ith since Old Irish times nearly a millennium before Johnson. As it happens, while some forms of the Irish verb are cognate with eat, the present stem in ith- is not (though it is, quite distantly, cognate with fat and the name Ireland), so it’s not even a valid example – but Johnson couldn’t know that in the 18th century when most Celtic sound laws were yet to be discovered. Commented May 23, 2023 at 13:48

Here in Yorkshire /ˈɛt/ is commonly used in Yorkshire dialect. And the past participle is /ˈɛtn/ (I think I've transcribed that correctly). Even people who don't speak dialect usually sing the last but one verse of the song "on Ilkley Moor baht 'at" using /ˈɛtn/, usually written "etten". (Then we shall all have etten thee...)

  • The Yorkshire dialect was widely represented in 18th century British literature, and has not changed much since then.
    – barbecue
    Commented May 23, 2023 at 21:18
  • Yorkshire dialect IS a form of British English. As barbecue says it hasn't changed much since the 18th century. I find it fascinating how much English has changed in some areas of the UK and not in others.
    – RuthMcT
    Commented May 25, 2023 at 8:14

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