Be here when?

Dear Word Detective:  The Kung Fu Panda DVD has that old saying “Yesterday is history.  Tomorrow is a mystery.  Today is a gift.  That is why it is called the Present.  Open it and enjoy.”  That got me thinking about “present” (verb tense) and “present” (gift).  Is there any relationship between the two?  Perhaps in the dawn of the spoken word? — Don Wilkinson.

That’s a darn good question.  I must admit (to the probable mortification of everyone who knows me) that I had no idea, until a few minutes ago, of what “Kung Fu Panda” is.  (Thanks, Wikipedia!)  Then again, I also routinely fail to recognize major celebrities on TV, although I maintain that it’s not my fault.  C’mon, don’t Paris Hilton and Britney Spears and, um, whatshername, really all, you know, kinda look alike?  Anyway, if you liked that aphorism, you should swing by our house, where our motto is “Yesterday was a mystery, today is a muddle, and tomorrow is giving me a headache.”

There is indeed a relationship between “present” as a verb tense and “present” as a noun meaning “a gift.”  In fact, “present” can also be used as an adjective and adverb meaning “in the place being spoken of” (“Freddy was present for all the meetings with the FBI”) as well as an adjective or adverb meaning “existing or occurring now” (“He thought only of his present problems and refused to worry about his old age”).  But wait, there’s more!  “Present” (pronounced only in this case with a long “e” in the first syllable and the stress on the second) is also a verb meaning “to show or place before” (“May I present the star of Quack, Len the Duck”).  “Present” is a very versatile, if sometimes confusing, word.

It all started with the Latin adjective “praesens,” which means “being here now,” formed from roots meaning roughly “to be before one,” in the sense of standing in front of someone.  All the meanings of “present” we use today involve either one or both of these root senses of “right here” and “right now.”

The noun “present,” meaning “the period of time that is now occurring,” first appeared in English in the early 13th century, and gave us the “present” verb tense, in which the action of the verb is occurring right now.  This noun “present” originally also had a number of other forms, all now obsolete, which referred to something “present,” on the scene, at a particular time.  As I said, the “here” and “now” senses of “present” can be difficult to untangle.  “Present” as an adjective and adverb appeared in the early 14th century meaning both “right here” and “at this time.”

This brings us to the verb form of “present,” which appeared in English around 1300 with the meaning “to bring or place before someone,” as in a formal introduction (“He … led me into his hut … and presented me before his wife, as if she had been the Queen and I a duke,” Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886).  This verb “to present” could, however, cover the offering of things as well as people “placed in front of” the recipient, and so “to present” also meant “to give as a gift or prize.”  This gave us the use of “present” as a noun meaning “a gift given to another.”

So the “present” meaning “right now” and the “present” meaning “gift” are actually the same word.  But, notwithstanding Panda wisdom, that’s not “why” we call today “the present,” although there have been some days lately that I would cheerfully return for exchange.

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