Gimme an “S.”

Dear Word Detective:  My question is about the word “spell,” in particular the way it is used when someone, for example, might ask their friend, “Do you want me to spell you for a while?” as in “give you a break for a while.”  I used it in front of my middle-aged son and he said that he had never, once, heard it used that way in his entire life.  We had to explain it to him.  I immediately thought of you.  Where did it come from and when? — Lee.

That’s a good question.  I’m not surprised that your son hadn’t heard “spell” used to mean “take over for someone for a while,” because I myself haven’t run across it used that way in years.  In fact, if you Google the word “spell,” what you get are results about evenly divided between “online spell check” (hard to argue with the need for that) and “spell” in the “magic spell” sense, prompting dozens of ads for things designed to “bring back your lover” and similar bad ideas.  Am I the only one around here who’s a bit disturbed that if you scratch the surface of the internet you find yourself back in the 14th century?

A reader recently asked me if all the various meanings of “litter” (trash, battlefield stretcher, passel of puppies, etc.) are really all the same word, which they are.  In the case of all the meanings of “spell,” however, we are dealing with three separate words, although two of them are related.

“Spell” used as a verb meaning “to enunciate the letters making up a word” first appeared in English in the 14th century, borrowed from the Old French “espeller,” and originally meant “to read out, to study intently.”  Interestingly, the phrase “spell out,” meaning “to explain something step-by-step in detail” (“If you weren’t such a fool you’d know it too. You want me to spell it out in words of one syllable for you?”, 1956) is a very recent invention, first appearing around 1940.

The root of that Old French “espeller” was the ancient Germanic root “spell,” which also gave us the “magic” sort of “spell.”  The original sense of this noun “spell” when it appeared in Old English was simply “talk, narration,” but by the late 16th century, this “spell” had taken on the special meaning of “a set of words supposed to possess magical powers; an incantation.”  This “spell” is also used in the figurative, non-occult sense of “a compelling interest or attraction” (“The spell is removed; I see you as you are,” Jane Austen, Lady Susan, 1817).

“Spell” as a verb meaning “to work in place of another” is completely unrelated to either of the “spells” above.  This “spell” comes from the Old English verb “spelian,” meaning “to take the place of; to substitute,” and when it appeared in modern English in the late 16th century it was with the specific meaning of “to relieve another by taking a turn at work.”  Used as a noun, this “spell” originally meant “a group of persons taking a turn at work to relieve others,” what we today would call a “shift.”  By the 18th century, we were using “spell” in this sense to mean “a turn at work; a period of labor,” or, conversely, “a period of relaxation from work.”  Eventually, “spell” lost its connection to work entirely and came to mean “a period of time of indeterminate length” sometimes spent in a particular way (“Then came a spell of wandering, of high play, of rage for costly excitement…,” 1885).  This “spell” is also used in such phrases as “fainting spell” and to mean a stretch of  weather, as in “hot spell.”  This “period of time” usage is now considered a bit antiquated, and often found in dialogue written to depict old fashioned or rustic characters (“Go sit a spell on the porch with Pa while I fry us some possum”).

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