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shameless pleading

Make do

Good enough. Time for pizza.

Dear Word Detective: Something about the phrase “make do” (to use a workable substitute for lack of the preferred tool, ingredient, etc.) has always bugged me, but my curiosity remained under control until a friend recently spelled it “make due.” I see from your columns on “jerry/jury rig” and “jackleg” that you use the former, but the search didn’t find an explanation of “make do” in your archives. How did we come up with this phrase? Then I started thinking about similar words and phrases: makeshift, get by, in a pinch. None of those seem especially straightforward. Any insight on their origins? — Harold Tessmann III.

Well, it’s definitely “make do.” About fifteen years ago, somebody gave me a coffee cup bearing the adage “Use it up; wear it out; make it do, or do without,” which struck me at the time as either an admirable exhortation against mindless consumerism or the sort of thing you’d see written on the wall of a salt mine. Nonetheless, I still have the cup, and that little poem captures the spirit of “make do,” the idea of “getting by” with something that may not be perfect or really sufficient for the task at hand, but is good enough (“Rasmussen had to make do with four eggs and only half a dozen rounds of toast because I was there,” 1968).

The “make” in “make do” is our common English verb “to make,” which comes from the Old English “macian” and Germanic roots further back, all with the basic sense of “to build, construct, create.” In English, “make” has developed a dizzying number (seriously, I’m dizzy as I type this) of derivative uses, from “making dinner” to “making a fire” to “make time” to do something to “make history” or simply “to make it” and achieve a goal. “To make do” falls within the use of “make” to mean “to cause a person or thing to do something,” as in “make someone cry.” (“Make believe,” using the same sense of “make,” originally meant “to make others believe something,” but now means “to pretend to believe.”)

The “do” in “make do” is the common verb meaning “to perform or execute” used in an intransitive sense meaning “to be fitting or appropriate; to suffice,” the same sense found in the expression “That will do.” In the case of “make do,” the emphasis is on “making” something “do” that otherwise might not “do,” might not be quite right or sufficient. “Make do” first appeared in print in that exact form in the 1920s, but Charlotte Bronte used the form “make it do” in her 1847 “Jane Eyre.”

“Makeshift” as an adjective applied to something used as an improvised substitute (“Bob used his necktie as a makeshift sling.”) comes from a specialized use of the verb “shift” to mean “to be content with or put up with,” which comes in turn from “shift” in the very old (1500) sense of “to work hard; to try all means to accomplish a goal.” (Thus “shiftless” meaning “lazy.”) The adjective “makeshift” dates back to the late 17th century (“There were a lot of children about, and a good many babies, some in makeshift cradles, some tucked up in a rug,” W.S. Maugham, 1915).

To “get by,” meaning “to manage, to get along,” employs “get” in the sense of “accomplish, achieve” (as in “Get a look” or “Get some sleep”), here with the sense of surmounting, surviving or “getting past” obstacles in one’s path, albeit with some difficulty, and dates to the early 20th century (“Our old bus will get by with a new engine,” 1952).

“In a pinch,” meaning “in an emergency or when a more appropriate solution is unavailable” (“A warm basement can also be transformed into a fine growing area, and even a warm spot near a sunny window will do in a pinch,” Martha Stewart, 1991), comes from “pinch” in the sense of “An instance, occasion, or time of special difficulty; a critical juncture; a crisis, an emergency” (Oxford English Dictionary). The “pinch” here is a metaphorical “tight spot,” a painful constriction of action caused by the circumstances of the moment, and “in a pinch” dates back to the late 15th century.

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