We know that the word word can sometimes be a synonym for promise, as in:

  1. You have my word.

to mean:

  1. You have my promise.

And I haven’t seen any other sentence structures that word is used to mean promise in them.

My question: When did word become a synonym for promise for the first time?

  • MODERATOR NOTE: Use comments only to ask for more information about the question or to suggest improvements to the question. Answers in comments will be removed.
    – tchrist
    Oct 8 at 0:44
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    Maybe a follow-up question: what's older, "word" in the sense of "promise" or "word" in the sense of "atom of a sentence"? Oct 9 at 0:43
  • There's a metaphor of transfer involved -- it's not just the word word. There are constructions like I give you my word; You have my word where something is pledged and owed. But word is just short for whatever words are exchanged (and their form, which must be correct or it doesn't count). As for when that happened, I leave it to the answers. Oct 9 at 19:18
  • It's right to note that the phrase is an idiom.
    – J D
    Oct 9 at 23:01

3 Answers 3


From the online resource, Middle English Compendium

  1. word
    (a) A command, an edict, a royal decree, etc.; an expressed request, (someone’s) bidding; hunt. & hawk. a call or command to a hound or falcon; wordes of livere, ?instructions, directions; ?an authorized order; (b) an assurance, a guarantee; (someone’s) pledge, promise, word of honor; a statement of intent; also, an oath; holden (kepen) ~; (c) a prophecy, prediction; (d) a boast; blustering; also, a threat; gret (heigh, proud) wordes; (e) a word or series of words used in ritual, prayer, incantation; also, a prayer, an incantation.


  • Ðet wæs first seo kyning Wulfere þe þet feostnode first mid his worde & siððon mid his fingre ge wrat on Cristes mel.
    Source:Peterborough Chronicle, a1121

A very rough translation

  • …confirmed first by his word and later with his fingers written on the crucifix

GEdgar's answer which cites an earlier instance dates from 1008. I found, what appears a trustworthy translation, in a series of papers dedicated to Alfred the Great entitled Alfred the Wise printed in 1997

The similarly confirmative, alliterating word-pair word and wedd occurs twice in the laws: King Æthelred’s code of 1008 [V Atr.5], goðence word & wedd þe he God betœhte ‘let (every monk) consider the word and pledge that he gave to God’, and similarly King Æthelred’s Laws issued at King’s Enham [VI Atr. 3a], both Wulfstanian. It occurs in a homily not now attributed to Wulfstan: and gif ge nyllað healdan eower word and eower wedd, ge þonne beoð adilegode of ealra lifigendra bocum ‘and if you will not keep your word and your pledge, then you will be blotted out from the books of all the living’. It occurs once in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in the annal for 1014, versions C, D, and E: & man þa fulne freondscipe gefœstnode mid worde & mid wedde on œgþre healfe ‘And then a complete compact of friendship was confirmed with word and with pledge on either side’[…]


When did “word” become a synonym of “promise” for the first time?

This a question for historical linguistics, and such questions are usually unanswerable because the ideas of a language might actually predate a language itself and languages themselves don't, strictly speaking, have beginnings and ends. If Modern English has the expression, "to give one's word", then it seems Middle and Old English do too, which then begs the question is it proto-Germanic? For instance, if a speaker of the Bokmål, uses the same construction to communicate the same meaning, then likely there has never been English where 'to give a word' was never used, and that's because there is not strict dividing line between proto-Germanic, Frisian, Old English, Middle English, etc. In fact, dialects of languages are difficult to define as dialects in opposition to distinct languages, a fact that Scots and Veneto speakers might realize given their often contested statuses as distinct languages. The fact that OED has examples going back to old English doesn't necessarily mean that the idiom began there. It may very well go back to the Romans, in which case on Latin Stack Exchange, you might be able to ask the same question and date the idiom back to the beginning of Latin. And even then, who is to say that it wasn't used well before its first known archaeological appearance? The idiom may have been used by the putative speakers of PIE.

  • 2
    The implication in these questions is usually the first attestation in written English language as we are on EL&U and we can often answer that. The OP could have asked more explicitly and there is the etymology tag. Some words/phrases go as far back to Old English and in some cases, borrowed from Latin, Greek, Germanic etc., and OED often mentions them. Etymonline usually gives the PIE origins/roots as well. Some words are traced back to the oldest languages in the world, like water. Nice explanation about historical linguistics though.
    – ermanen
    Oct 9 at 4:32
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    As a note, this construction of "to give one's word" also exists in both Slavic languages I speak - Russian and Serbian - so there's a decent chance it's not even a Germanic construct. Maybe it goes all the way back to PIE, who knows?
    – Mash
    Oct 9 at 11:12
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    @Mash and in Czech as well, so it's all three Slavic language families :-)
    – Edheldil
    Oct 9 at 13:54
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    To your point, consider the Jewish tradition of covenants. Numbers 30:2: "When a man voweth a vow unto the Lord, or sweareth an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth."
    – Blackhawk
    Oct 9 at 22:45
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    @Mash As one who understands Hebrew, in this case, "word/speech" is a direct translation from the Hebrew.
    – Esther
    Oct 10 at 14:28

"To keep one's word" ...
For this sense, Oxford English Dictionary (subscription required) has examples back to Old English

Gif ge nyllað healdan eower word and eower wedd, ge þonne beoð adilegode of ealra lifigendra bocum.

tchrist points out this definition... "A promise, a pledge, an undertaking; a guarantee. Almost always with possessive." This also has quotations back to Old English. Here is a more recent one from 1393:

It sit wel every wiht To kepe his word in trowthe upryht.

  • 2
    No, you need sense 1.7.a. “A promise, a pledge, an undertaking; a guarantee. Almost always with possessive.” The first citation is Se cyning [sc. Herod]..nolde þeah for his aðe ne for þam gebeorum his word awægen. Catholic Homilies: 1st Series (Royal MS.) (1997) xxxii. 451 Ælfric of Eynsham (c950–c1010), Benedictine abbot of Eynsham and scholar.
    – tchrist
    Oct 7 at 18:03
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    @SnackExchange This is a use from time immemorial, since before you would recognize English as English, and from before that even further. The first documented use in English was during the first millennium, back when we numbered years in fewer digits than we use today. This is hardly limited to English. You can find this in other modern languages as well, such as French parole and Spanish palabra, whose etymon is Ancient Greek παραβολή and which was used in the Koine in the New Testament. It would little surprise me to find it in Gilgamesh.
    – tchrist
    Oct 7 at 18:07
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    @tchrist And those are just comments? Sounds like an answer to me.
    – Lambie
    Oct 7 at 18:50
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    @SnackExchange From παραβολή Old Spanish once had parabla where Modern Spanish now has palabra and Modern Portuguese now has palavra; see also English palaver. Long-distance reciprocal metathesis of /r/ and /l/ like this has often occurred historically in many languages, including in Western Romance such as Spanish, Portuguese, Galician, Asturian, Gascon, French, and some Italian. Other examples include L. miraculum > ES milagro, Gal/PT milagre; L. periculum > ES peligro, Ast peligru. See this related question.
    – tchrist
    Oct 7 at 19:26
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    @SnackExchange you're talking about a language that calls the country to its southeast on the other side of the Mediterranean Argelia.
    – phoog
    Oct 8 at 22:45

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