If one is accustomed to doing something, it's often said in English that they are "used" to doing it. However, why do we use "used" in this way? It doesn't seem to bear much relation to the simple past tense of "use"; does it nevertheless originate from the word "use" or a different word which has come to be spelt the same as the past tense of "use"?


2 Answers 2


It may come from the (largely archaic) sense of use the noun meaning habit; 'It is his use to do so' is not uncommon in Shakespeare, and custom and use is good legal justification in certain circumstances (I don't at present feel inclined to revisit the question whether there is a difference between the two words). Interestingly, there is a line in Twelfth Night, "How use doth breed a habit in man!", which may indicate a gradual line from one use, to common use, to use/custom, to habit. But this is largely speculation.

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    If you look up use in etymonline, the Latin noun usus had the meanings use, skill, custom, habit. So this usage may have come from Latin through French. I don't know how the definition habit got switched from the noun to the verb, or how usus developed these two different meanings in Latin. Commented May 10, 2012 at 0:21

It's not the meaning of the word used (pronounced [yuzd]) that's the problem. It's the meaning and usage of the two idioms spelled "used to", pronounced ['yustə], and never pronounced [yuzd tu].

The first idiom, which is the one you cite, is actually "(be) used to"; it's a predicate adjective construction, and therefore needs an auxiliary be, which holds the tense morpheme. "(Be) used to" takes a human subject, and refers to that subject's level of familiarity with something.

  • Bill is used to sleeping on the train means that he frequently does it.
  • Bill was used to sleeping on the train means that he frequently did it.

The other idiom is a true verb and thus requires no auxiliary verb, but its tense is fixed (past) and can't be changed. Also, there's a spelling problem with rules like question formation and negative formation that require Do-Support.

This idiom has a very complex meaning. X used to VP asserts that X VPed for some time in the past, and presupposes that X no longer VPs Thus,

  • Carter used to be President asserts that he was once President and presupposes he's not now.

whereas, by contrast,

  • Carter isn't President any more asserts he's no longer President and presupposes he once was.

As to why "used" is used this way, it really isn't.

Native speakers don't feel that these idioms are connected with the verb to use. That's why we don't say things like

  • *Bill used frequently to come here.
  • *Bill is used completely to the noise.

which would require the normal [yuzd ... to] pronunciation, instead of saying

  • Bill used to come here frequently.
  • Bill is completely used to the noise.

which keep the [yustə] pronunciation that identifies the idioms.

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    I'm not the downvoter, but if I were, it would probably be because this answer doesn't feel like it addresses the question. While I enjoyed the scholarly writing, I got lost. Is the "Carter used to be President" idiom relevant? (It seems to be. Did you bring it up to point out some kind of conflation?) When you say "As to why 'used' is used this way, it really isn't"... um, it's not really used which way? And how does this explain how the "accustomed/familiar" idiom arose?
    – John Y
    Commented May 9, 2012 at 21:43
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    There are two idioms, both are pronounced the same, neither is pronounced [yuzd tu], neither is a form of the verb use, and they both have special grammar. If you ask about one, you need to know that there are two, so you can distinguish between them, and idioms, by definition, don't make sense. So, how should one "address the question"? Commented May 9, 2012 at 21:57
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    500 years ago or so they developed out of some other idioms and senses of use which are no longer current. Some people still believe it's related to use, others don't any more -- sort of like pull and pulley -- so it's a complex question whether it is related or not. And it bears no relation at all to how it's used or why it's a problem for non-native speakers. Commented May 9, 2012 at 22:55
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    I disagree about "used frequently to say", which I find perfectly acceptable.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented May 9, 2012 at 23:12
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    It seems the original meaning was 20a. To make (a person, animal, etc.) accustomed to something by habit, practice, or exposure; to habituate, accustom, familiarize; to inure. (a) In early use: spec. to train in a craft, skill, etc. (OED). "To see his men vsed & wel taught in the said art" (1489) or another funny example "She took my gay lord frae my side, And used him in her company." (1826)
    – Alex B.
    Commented May 9, 2012 at 23:50

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