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shameless pleading

Well-to-do

I wanna vote for someone who knows the percentage a Coinstar machine takes. Or even what it is.

Dear Word Detective:  During a conversation with my wife the other day, she mentioned that someone was from a “well-to-do” family. That is a phrase I have heard and used all my life without much thought.  But it suddenly struck me that, even though I know the phrase means someone who is upper class or wealthy, the phrase itself is pretty much nonsensical. How did this come to mean what it does?  Curiouser and curiouser. — Chip Taylor.

Indeed. What I find interesting is that one hears “well-to-do” less frequently today than when I was a kid, which is odd since the rich are both richer and more numerous now. It’s far more common for people to avoid “rich,” “wealthy,” “well-to-do” and similar quantitative adjectives in favor of job descriptions (“hedge fund manager,” “investment banker,” “venture capitalist,” etc.) that leave no doubt that said person is sitting on a mountain of money. Anyone remember the old TV show “The Millionaire,” in which the mysterious and fabulously wealthy John Beresford Tipton gave one million dollars to some poor schnook every week (usually ruining the schnook’s life)? There are, at the moment, more than eight million millionaires in the US. No wonder nobody bothers showing reruns of “The Millionaire.”

“Well-to-do” is one of a number of adjectival phrases, some dating to the 16th or 17th centuries meaning “possessing enough wealth to ensure a comfortable life.” “Well-off” is still in frequent use, while others such as “well in cash,” “well in the world,” “well to pass” and “well to live” have faded away. “Well-to-do” is a fairly recent arrival, first appearing in the early 19th century (along with its fuller form “well to do in the world”).

“Well,” all by itself, is an interesting word. As a verb, it means “to spring, rise to the surface, gush, or flow,” as tears might “well” in the eyes of guests at a wedding. As a noun, it generally means a deep hole in the ground from which water, oil, etc., are pumped or flow. Both these forms come from a Germanic root carrying the sense of “bubble up.”

The adjective “well,” however, is unrelated to those “wells.” Meaning generally “sufficient, satisfactory, reasonable, in good condition or health,” this “well” comes from the same old Germanic roots as the verb “to will,” and originally meant “appropriate; in keeping with proper standards” (i.e., “as society would will it”). “Well” has many senses and uses, but all of them involve the general sense of a thing, person or action being suitable, appropriate, completed, prosperous, enlightened, happy, secure and similar qualities. “Well” as an adjective is a very positive word.

One of the senses of “well” in the early 15th century was “in a state of prosperity; affluent,” frequently amplified in phrases with specifics, such “well in cash” or “well in goods.” A more delicate estimation might be “well off,” still very much in use as a euphemism for “loaded,” the “off” being the same sense of the word (roughly meaning “situated”) used in “better off” and “worse off.” A similar sense is filled by “to do” in “well-to-do.” One of the uses of the verb “to do” is to express condition or habitual state (as in “How are you doing?”). In “well-to-do,” the “to-do” indicates that the person’s situation is comfortable and sufficiently secure to continue indefinitely.

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