I'm interested in finding the origin of the phrase "get back on terms". Commentators in the Tour de France and other big bike races use it all the time. I understand it in context; its meaning is that someone has fallen behind and they need to catch up to someone in order to get back on terms. I've searched online and find others saying that's what it means, but they don't have the origin. It's also used in other sports, not only cycling.

Asking this on Mastodon brought me a good explanation of the meaning that matches my understanding, but still not point of origin, if that's findable. Maybe it's simply inherent in the meaning of "terms". The construction of the phrase feels like British English to me.

Explanation from my Mastodon source—all plausible and intuitive, no source cited:

Terms in this case is a synonym for footing or relationship, specifically to be "on terms" is to be on an equal footing, to have a relationship as equals. So in sport to be "on terms" with someone means to have an equal chance of winning in comparison to them.

Thus to be "back on terms" means you had fallen behind, but had worked your way back to being equal with them.

Likewise, to be "on speaking terms" means your relationship is close enough that you speak with each other, though you may not be equal in other ways. Historically, 'terms' relates to a boundary; in time, space, or other conditions.

So a school term is an amount of time bound to a set end.

While to be 'on terms' is to be meeting at a boundary point. Such as two nations or tribes meeting at their border to discuss things on equal footing (both in their own area, with neither having the 'home ground advantage'). Or two sports teams having equal points. Etcetera.

  • TFD notes, as you say, that it can mean "equal in score." Not sure about the etymology, though.
    – alphabet
    Jul 18 at 15:21

1 Answer 1




Etymology: < Anglo-Norman term, tearme, Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French, French terme, Old French (Flanders) tierme fixed point in time at which something is to happen (c1050),

This was a “time condition” for something to happen – (Compare - term in relation to pregnancy) by the 13th century, this had become any condition, hence “terms and conditions”.

On terms has its own history in which the “on” (or probably the obsolete “an”) implied a continuance.

P2. on (also upon) terms.
†a. Engaged in making conditions, negotiating (with). Obsolete.

1567 G. Fenton tr. M. Bandello Certaine Tragicall Disc. f. 142
Counterfetting so artyfyciallie their amarus regardes..whilest they were vppon tearmes to obteine her goodwill.

This meaning developed so as to include the conditions required for the “terms”:

b. (a) With qualifying adjective or of: under the specified (type of) conditions or limitations; in the manner specified. Formerly also without qualification or following construction: †on certain conditions; conditionally (obsolete).

1602 W. Watson tr. E. Pasquier Iesuites Catech. xxv. f. 225v The Order was established in Rome, and Ignatius chosen Generall, and that vpon termes [Fr. sur cette proposition] of an absolute Gouernour.

1617 S. Purchas Pilgrimage (ed. 3) v. vii. §4. 598 Hee sent a present to the Vice-roy with some Treatie of peace, whereof the Vice-roy made light account, thinking first to ouercome vs..and then to treat of peace on his owne termes.

It then continued to include the quality or nature of the terms:

(a) On good terms; on a friendly or amicable footing.

1757 Northern Revol. 34 He..judged he might rule each Kingdom sometimes arbitrarily, provided he could keep upon Terms with the two Others.

Finally, and in your meaning, in the early 19th century we have

**(b) Sport (originally Hunting). On terms of equality; on an equal footing; level in position or score. Frequently in to get on terms: to draw level with, catch up to.

1826 Asiatic Jrnl. & Monthly Reg. Dec. 711/2 They [sc. the hounds] checked for a few minutes, owing to the jackal having headed short away to the right towards Barasett; they however soon got on terms with him again.

Which has the sense of reaching the same conditions as the other has.

  • Thanks so much for charting its path forward in time. Jul 19 at 2:25

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