Can't be asked / Can't be arsed

James Brandon

Senior Member
English + French - UK
A friend of mine raised this issue. This one puzzled me and I double-checked on line and there are differing opinions. One expression would be a variation on the other, but there is no consensus as to which one came first, it seems.

Some people say 'can't be asked' is a decaf version of 'can't be arsed', but other people say that the latter was made up whereas the former was the original one.

'Can't be arsed' is BE.

Insight welcome. Thanks

PS I have checked the dictionary but the expression does not seem to be included.
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If I would not do anything (as opposed to something), regardless of who asked me to do it (you, or you, or you), then I truly can't be asked.' Apparently in the 1990s people changed it to arsed and it just kind of stuck. My best friend says asked, I say arsed.10 Feb 2009

Can't be arsed vs. Can't be asked - The Student Room
www.thestudentroom.co.uk/showthread.php?t=811879

https://www.google.co.uk/#q=he+can%27t+be+arsed
 
  • James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    I have now read in full the other 2 threads, but they don't actually answer my question, because they do not focus on what my question is about. My question is about 'can't be arsed' Vs 'can't be asked'.

    One thread is about 'can't be arsed' and possible American usage, and it is confirmed 'can't be assed' is not used by Americans, as a matter of fact (since in AE 'ass' is used instead of 'arse' to refer in vulgar fashion to a person's backside). 'Can't be arsed' is clearly a British English phrase, also found in Commonwealth countries such as Australia. One unexpected twist is a NZ contributor who says that, in New Zealand, they say 'can't be assed' (meaning 'can't be arsed'), thus spelling it with 'ass' for 'arse', even though Americans would not use the phrase.

    The other thread is about the verb pattern following the phrase, i.e. gerund or infinitive, and it seems to me that both are possible and no clear answer was given to the Italian contributor. Cf: 'I can't be arsed to do it' Vs 'I can't be arsed [with] doing it'.

    Various forums discuss the matter I have raised, such as this one: The original phrase "can't be asked', meaning one lacks motivation to act, was corrupted in the late 1990's to "can't be arsed". Both phrases are valid and remain in common usage. (2012)

    Is the phrase can't be asked or can't be ars*d? in The AnswerBank: Phrases & Sayings


    So, if anyone has any idea regarding my query, which does come up in Google searches as a language issue, please let us know. Thanks.
     
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    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    I have now read in full the other 2 threads, but they don't actually answer my question, because they do not focus on what my question is about. My question is about 'can't be arsed' Vs 'can't be asked'.

    One thread is about 'can't be arsed' and possible American usage, and it is confirmed 'can't be assed' is not used by Americans, as a matter of fact (since in AE 'ass' is used instead of 'arse' to refer in vulgar fashion to a person's backside). 'Can't be arsed' is clearly a British English phrase, also found in Commonwealth countries such as Australia. One unexpected twist is a NZ contributor who says that, in New Zealand, they say 'can't be assed' (meaning 'can't be arsed'), thus spelling it with 'ass' for 'arse', even though Americans would not use the phrase.

    The other thread is about the verb pattern following the phrase, i.e. gerund or infinitive, and it seems to me that both are possible and no clear answer was given to the Italian contributor. Cf: 'I can't be arsed to do it' Vs 'I can't be arsed [with] doing it'.

    So, if anyone has any idea regarding my query, which does come up in Google searches as a language issue, please let us know. Thanks.
    They may not answer your (very) specific question but they may represent a large part of the discussion of the phrases you can find on-line:) If "can't be asked" were used much, it would probably have shown up in those discussions, but it does not. That was part of the reason to read them:)
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    Well, that's one way of answering the question. The possibility remains that 'can't be asked' would have been the original phrase that was changed to 'can't be arsed' for effet at some stage. Personally, I don't know whether that is the case or not, but several contributors on those other forums seem to believe it (and they quote the 1990s as the inflexion point). 'Can't be arsed' would have the advantage that it is more striking and more forceful, as it were...
     

    Truffula

    Senior Member
    English - USA
    From what I can tell from a cursory search, it's that "can't be arsed" is the original, but was sincerely mistakenly understood as " can't be asked" and used that way, so both exist now, with the former being the original and mostly British version. The British version has apparently become shortened to "CBA" and then "ceebs" according to a slang dictionary reference I found.

    No references to "can't be asked" used this way were found in my various searches. The fact that "can't be arsed" is used in some ways where "can't be asked" would not make sense (see the "ing" forms mentioned here: Eggcorn Forum / "Can't be asked" for "can't be arsed" for examples) makes it seem very unlikely to me that "can't be asked" is the original... I'd ask them to show usage before 1990 of the "can't be asked" in this sense, rather than literally as in "this question can't be asked at an interview" or something if they want to assert that. Some claims that "can't be arsed" was used in the 1960s exist but I'm just as skeptical of those...
     
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    Hermione Golightly

    Senior Member
    British English
    I am not at all familiar with 'I can't be asked!' meaning 'I can't be bothered!'.
    Until I got on-line about 20 years ago I wouldn't have known 'I can't be arsed!' because I was living abroad and on the whole not talking to the sort of British people who would dream of using 'arse' 'in polite company'.
    It was a completely taboo word, at least for women, and still is in the sense I'd be careful about using it. Not that I'm at all shocked by the word itself, you understand.

    If 'I can't be asked' did ever exist, it would have to be used only by speakers of southern BE varieties who pronounce 'ask' like 'arsk', so they'd be using 'asked' as a sound-alike euphemism for 'arsed'.
    It would make no sense for northern BE speakers like me who say 'ask' like 'assk'.
    In my day, we'd say "I can't be bloody-well bothered!" or maybe, more recently "I can't be effing bothered", or/and change 'bothered' to cockney 'bovvered'.

    I don't really know or use these terms other than reactive exclamations.
     
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    DonnyB

    Member Emeritus
    English UK Southern Standard English
    Well, I'd never heard it said as "Can't be asked" before I read this thread, in fact. I tend to use "Can't be arsed" and hear it used, as a standalone rather than as a construction with a gerund or a following infinitive, but I imagine you could use either. "Can't be arsed with it" is also a possibility.

    Grammatically it appears to be a passive infinitive of the verb "to arse", which I see Oxford Dictionaries has found two other usages of: "to arse around/about" and "to arse something up". :)
     

    suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    I am not at all familiar with 'I can't be asked!' meaning 'I can't be bothered!'.
    Neither am I! It just doesn't work for me.

    But then, having been involved in the thread that Julian refers to (another think coming) I am used to complete bafflement at what strange things other people seem to whole-heartedly believe.

    "to arse" as a verb only appears in the OED as "arse about". They have an entry dating back to 1664 for that. It means to "fool about" which is not quite the same as making an effort (or not making an effort) but close enough.

    Usually the namby-pamby versions of any swearing phrase derives from the vulgar one, not the other way around. It is logical, even if not etymological.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    OK, so the consensus view here appears to be that it is the opposite of what various people claim on other forums I have seen, i.e. that 'can't be asked' came first, and it would be 'can't be arsed' that was the original phrase, misinterpreted as 'can't be asked' along the way. 'Can't be asked' would not be totally absurd: 'I can't be asked to do it', as in, 'Don't ask me [to do it] because I have no intention of doing it' -- but it is true that the construction would, then, have to be with the infinitive. 'Can't be bothered' is, similarly, followed by the infinitive ('he couldn't be bothered to answer the phone') in every case, I believe.
     

    ElGladiador

    Member
    English - USA
    and it is confirmed 'can't be assed' is not used by Americans, as a matter of fact (since in AE 'ass' is used instead of 'arse' to refer in vulgar fashion to a person's backside). 'Can't be arsed' is clearly a British English phrase, also found in Commonwealth countries such as Australia.

    I've heard countless Americans say "can't be assed". In fact, I was surprised to find out that Britain/Commonwealth countries used the term (albeit using "arse") since I figured it was probably an Americanism given how many times I heard it during my childhood back in the dark ages before the internet.
     

    ElGladiador

    Member
    English - USA
    I've lived my entire life in Tennessee, so perhaps it's just a Southern thing or perhaps someone way back when came over here (West Tennessee) from Britain and imported the phrase locally and over countless decades it became a common saying around these parts. So, to clarify my original comment, it doesn't appear to be a common American saying from what you and others are saying, but it is at least common in Tennessee.
     

    JustKate

    Senior Member
    I've lived my entire life in Tennessee, so perhaps it's just a Southern thing or perhaps someone way back when came over here (West Tennessee) from Britain and imported the phrase locally and over countless decades it became a common saying around these parts. So, to clarify my original comment, it doesn't appear to be a common American saying from what you and others are saying, but it is at least common in Tennessee.
    That's certainly a possibility. I am confident it's not common, but that's not the same thing as saying it's unheard of.
     

    ElGladiador

    Member
    English - USA
    If you ever get the chance, look up the documentary Mountain Talk (2004). It's about the unique dialect of English spoken in Appalachia, and it makes frequent reference to phrases/idioms that are in common currency in Britain but unheard of in America except for Appalachia. This conversation just reminded me of the documentary.
     

    ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    Well, I'd never heard it said as "Can't be asked" before I read this thread, in fact.
    Me neither.
    Usually the namby-pamby versions of any swearing phrase derives from the vulgar one, not the other way around.
    I'm reasonably (44%) sure that it can work both ways. My reasonably educated (44%) guess is that this one went: can't be bothered > can't be buggered > can't be arsed.

    (I'm also willing to bet a nice meaty £5 note that can't be arsed has been around a lot longer than 20 years, given that arse itself has been around for 1,000.)
     

    JustKate

    Senior Member
    If you ever get the chance, look up the documentary Mountain Talk (2004). It's about the unique dialect of English spoken in Appalachia, and it makes frequent reference to phrases/idioms that are in common currency in Britain but unheard of in America except for Appalachia. This conversation just reminded me of the documentary.
    I've not seen that particular documentary, but I have read about the BE-Appalachia link. :)
     

    suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    Me neither.

    I'm reasonably (44%) sure that it can work both ways. My reasonably educated (44%) guess is that this one went: can't be bothered > can't be buggered > can't be arsed.

    (I'm also willing to bet a nice meaty £5 note that can't be arsed has been around a lot longer than 20 years, given that arse itself has been around for 1,000.)
    Your use of numbers adds an air of scientific authority I can but admire. ;)

    Now I'll grant you swearing can evolve from everyday things getting more vulgar, but lots of the old ones were blasphemy modified to smooth out obvious biblical refs in times when blasphemy was a serious offence
    e.g. Zounds=God's wounds


    In modern times mum used lots of everyday words to slide over more robust options, which is what I suspect when the sounds are so close

    sugar=shit
    Armhole=arsehole
    (Admittedly my mum is the only person I ever heard saying this!)
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    It is fair to say that a lot of mild-sounding expressions are decaf versions of rude ones (e.g.: 'cor blimey' = 'God, blind me!'). In this particular case, the consensus view appears to be, however, that the correct expression is 'can't be arsed' and the other one ('can't be asked') would be a re-interpretation, ex-post.

    The usage issue is also pretty clear: the expression is clearly BE, hence also Australian. One NZ contributor said it is 'can't be assed' in NZ; only one American contributor said he is familiar with the phrase, spelt 'assed' since 'arse' is spelt 'ass' in US English -- see above, on the local form of English spoken in the Appalachians and Tennessee.

    It would be interesting to have an idea as to how old or recent 'can't be arsed', as a phrase, is.
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    To arse and to ass seem to contemporaneous and are recorded in the OED as 17th century:

    to ass: 2. intr. To act the ass. Now freq. in (orig. schoolboys') slang: to fool about.
    1647 N. Ward Simple Cobler Aggawam 48 To keep their Kings from Divelizing, and themselves from Assing.

    to arse: to arse about, around, to ‘mess around’, fool about. (Cf. ass v. 2) slang.
    1664 C. Cotton Scarronides 9 Arsing about.

    Interestingly, ask, in certain British accents, is often pronounced "ass'ed" - I suspect that this is where the confusion (intentional or not) arose.
     

    Trochfa

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    I think it could be reasonably old, as I believe it is simply a contraction of:

    "I can't be bothered to get up off my arse to do it".

    to

    "I can't be arsed".
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    So, like the word 'arse' itself, the phrase would be very old (mid-17th C.). Having said this, and without meaning to split hairs, if 'to arse about' is known to have existed since 1664, it does not mean 'I can't be arsed' has existed since 1664. It is a different expression and one would need to find a 1st mention in a written/ printed work of some sort, which is, itself, not 100% reliable, in fact (often, a phrase will pre-date its 1st mention in writing).

    When I did a quick search on line, all the commentators appeared to assume 'can't be arsed' was a recent expression and a distortion of 'can't be asked', i.e. the opposite of what this Thread has established. This is even the interpretation Google serves up tops, as the preferred view on the matter.
     

    pickarooney

    Senior Member
    English (Ireland)
    There are other variants, such as "can't be bothered', "couldn't be f%*ked" or "I couldn't be bollocksed" in common use, though I guess these were adapted from "can't/couldn't be arsed" rather than the other way around. However, for me it's a clear indication that "can't be asked" is just... not a real thing
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    The first occurrence in the Google Books database is 1978 in The Beatles by Hunter Davies
    If they can't be arsed awaiting for me, I can't be arsed going after them.
    There is only a snippet view, so I can't tell which Beatle said it. The fragment of context suggests that it was Paul. I was certainly familiar with the expression before then. The suggestion at the link in the OP that "asked" became "arsed" in the 90s is arrant nonsense. But then, I don't suppose the writer had been alive and talking very much before the 90s.

    When I did a quick search on line, all the commentators appeared to assume 'can't be arsed' was a recent expression and a distortion of 'can't be asked', i.e. the opposite of what this Thread has established. This is even the interpretation Google serves up tops, as the preferred view on the matter.
    Odd. A quick search online for "can't be asked" takes me immediately to places where people write that they've never heard "can't be asked" or say that it's an error. I can find no justification for your claim.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    When I first looked, I found several people thought 'can't be asked' had been re-formulated as 'can't be arsed'; I never said I believed it to be the case or that it was accurate -- hence this query. You do find other forums and websites stating the opposite, indeed, such as this one:-

    Urban Dictionary: Cant Be Asked

    Used by some Southern UK speakers in place of can't be arsed because they misheard it, or want to be more polite.

    The Beatles quote is interesting in terms of the use of the gerund (cf. other Thread on this issue).
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    Yes, "used in place of". In other words "arsed" came first. I don't understand why you comment about the gerund, "I can't be arsed doing something" is a normal construction.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    If you read one of the other 2 threads, the original contributor, from Italy, asked whether the gerund or the infinitive should be used after 'can't be arsed' ('I can't be arsed to do X' V 'I can't be arsed doing X'). There was no clear consensus, as I recall.
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    That's right. They are both unremarkable. That's why I was somewhat surprised that you thought the use of the gerund interesting.
     

    Edinburgher

    Senior Member
    German/English bilingual
    If you pronounce "arsed" with a non-rhotic accent, its sounds almost indistinguishable from "asked" (in which the 'k' is generally not articulated).
    That must be why some people (particularly those who do not expect to be hearing vulgar terms) misinterpret the former as the latter.
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    If you pronounce "arsed" with a non-rhotic accent, its sounds almost indistinguishable from "asked" (in which the 'k' is generally not articulated).
    That must be why some people (particularly those who do not expect to be hearing vulgar terms) misinterpret the former as the latter.
    :thumbsup:
    And ultimately led us, via questions on the web that show up in a search for the "asked" version, to this thread:)
     

    Hermione Golightly

    Senior Member
    British English
    There's non-rhotic and there's non-rhotic, isn't there?

    Several million non-rhotics say 'assked' not 'arsked', although of course they say 'arse' when they mean 'backside' and only use 'ass' for the animal. Those northern people have no problem distinguishing between the two sounds. Why would they decide that 'I can't be arsed' must mean 'I can't be assked, which makes little sense anyway.
    One could argue that I can't be bothered/buggared (which I'd forgotten) make little sense but they do:
    "I care so little that I can't put myself to the trouble" or "I care so little I'd rather be buggared", than go to the bother (of doing something). "I can't be arsed" is immediately understandable in context even if you're not familiar with the expression.
    "I can't be asked!" is senseless in this context, to RP ('received pronunciation') speakers in the south and even more senseless to northern English who aren't confused anyway. It invites a literal response like "Nobody was asking you!".

    For example, you're telling a friend about how the bus you were on stopped suddenly, throwing you to the floor. Your friend asks if you have complained to the bus company. "I can't be asked/assked" would be a ridiculous response. It would sound like a strange passive form of 'Don't ask me'.
    ⟨ʔ⟩
    I have no idea how many 'assked' northern speakers ever say 'ass⟨ʔ⟩t'. I feel there might be a form of glottal stop introduced to distinguish between 'ass⟨ʔ⟩d' and 'asst' (which isn't a word).
    As a non-rhotic northern English speaker I don't know how to phonetically convey exactly how I pronounce 'asked'. It's not 'arsked', 'asst' or 'akst'.
     
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    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    To go back briefly to the question of gerund Vs infinitive (above), the reason I flagged it was that, in the other Thread, this was discussed at some length, and opinions differed as to whether it should (or would usually) be one or the other. I am quite prepared to agree that both are in use and sound Ok.

    I agree that the issue of pronunciation would come into it: phonetically, at any rate with the way certain people pronounce 'arsed' and 'asked', there would be room for confusion, and this may have led to the query in the first place, i.e. people wondering whether it is one or the other, and trying to rationalize the use of one or the other. I am not from the north of England, and it is entirely conceivable that, in that part of the UK, the phonetic confusion would never arise in the first place.
     

    suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    My own synopsis, based on about 3 minutes browsing is that the "asked" version is NOT a thing apart from in a few language forums, which this one has now added to. :rolleyes:

    If you search for either phrase plus memes you get loads of visuals for "can't be arsed" because it IS phrase that people know and make up images about. The other draws a blank, no memes using the phrase = no currency!
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    I have not checked the 'memes'. But there are various forums/ websites where people discuss the 2 phrases, which would tend to indicate that some people have wondered which one it is, or have used (or heard) one Vs the other... But you are right and, from what I have seen, most commentators seem to confirm that the correct phrase is indeed 'can't be arsed'.

    Google
     

    suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    The "discussion" is self-perpetuating. We are doing it, and referring to the others, but they are drops in the ocean of actual language use.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    I was interested in the issue because it cropped up and I found other people had asked themselves the same question, that's all. If no one ever used 'can't be asked' (and one may agree that this is indeed wrong, on balance), there would be no confusion, hence there would be no discussion on line on this topic. This Thread could be deemed useful in that it clarifies the origin of the phrase and the way that it is used. But it is obvious that, the more you discuss something on line -- anything -- the more prominence you give to it, rightly or wrongly.

    At the end of the day, no one is forcing anyone to take part! :) Abstaining from propagating a phrase or notion one disapproves of is always an option one can choose.

    In effect, one is moving away from a discussion of the substance of the case to a discussion of the methodology... I was interested in scope, usage, origin, etc., not in the methodological issue per se, personally.
     

    suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    I think we've pretty much answered your question: very little scope or usage for "cant be asked" as an idiom for can't be bothered. I think the origin is fated to be shrouded in mystery.

    I don't think I was drifting to methodology, I was very clearly on "scope and usage".
    Q. Where do we find it?
    A. Not many places and mostly, on line, the places are the very thing itself being discussed.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    I believe people discuss it or have discussed it on line because they have heard it, or have felt unsure what the correct phrase was. After that, discussing the issue on line does increase occurrences, at any rate in the 'virtual' world, with a potential impact in the 'real' world, but it seems to me that those people who discuss it do not discuss it because they have seen it on line but because they have come across it in real life, or have wondered about it in real life -- if you are going to think about it in chicken V egg terms. In other words, it is not the internet that has created the phrase(s), but confusion around the phrase(s) that has generated the online presence of the said phrase(s), which in turn may amplify the use of the said phrase(s).

    E.g.: This discussion on line goes back to 2005.

    Is the phrase can't be asked or can't be ars*d? in The AnswerBank: Phrases & Sayings

    Some of the contributors say that they always thought it was 'can't be asked', and the consensus view is indeed that 'can't be arsed' is the correct form. Some people indicate that they use one form, or the other, or both in real life -- rightly or wrongly, as it were. This isn't just an online-forum language issue, as it were. (Cf also the other 2 threads on this forum, to the effect that people are simply asking themselves questions in relation to the use of specific phrases, what is accepted use and what is not, etc.)

    I had actually read this (above) before posting up my query on this forum, and I did because I thought some contributors would be able to shed more light on it and come up with extra insight that would be interesting, which I think they have.
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    You started by giving us a sourceless quotation - ie sourceless in the thread where you found it:
    I was bugged by this and found a thread about it elsewhere. One person said this:

    'My understanding .......

    Apparently in the 1990s people changed it to arsed and it just kind of stuck.
    That sourceless quotation is easily refuted by using Google's advanced search (so that you can limit the date range) for the text "can't be arsed" in books. Most people in Britain who had reached adult life before 1980 would also be well aware that this 1990s claim was rubbish, but couldn't be arsed with making a Google search for something so blindingly obvious. I almost didn't bother, but I thought I had better produce evidence to put this nonsensical claim to bed. I'd just point out that the appearance of the phrase in a quotation of colloquial speech in a book in 1978 is actually evidence that the phrase is appreciably older.

    By the way
    Q. Where do we find it?
    A. Not many places and mostly, on line, the places are the very thing itself being discussed.

    This discussion on line goes back to 2005.
    Yes, you are rather demonstrating suzi's point.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    All I am saying is that some people out there are or were confused about the correct phrase, hence various forums (including this one) discussing it, in order to clarify usage, which is what many of those forums are about and do, including this one, I believe. What is 'blindingly obvious' to one person may not be to another.

    The initial online source I quoted, called The Student Room, is an online forum not dissimilar to this one: it is not a 'sourceless' reference. There is a source. That source is the online forum in question, which one may recognise as of interest or not, but then the same scepticism could apply to, say, Wikipedia, etc.

    Take the word 'die' (plural, 'dice'): it is 'blindingly obvious' to most native speakers of English in the UK that one should say 'a dice', and I have seen it in print, also in textbooks for the learning of English intended for schoolchildren in this country (Britain). And yet, according to all British dictionaries I have seen, the correct form for the singular, never used or recognised by most native speakers in the UK, is 'die', not 'dice'. This is an example of confusion that can warrant an online or off-line discussion. And, no doubt, there would be arguments for/against one usage or the other... Such is life.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    Well, I think the matter has been covered and there is not much to be added: readers of this Thread will make up their own mind as to its relevance and its use, or otherwise. :p Over 300 apparently, by the latest count, so there is a surprising amount of interest out there...
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    I would have thought it was better if there was some interest and/or the discussion was interesting, but maybe there is something I have missed entirely. And I would have hoped relevance was indeed part of the criteria.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    I was asking about the origin of the phrase, that's correct, but also its relevance and its usage. In practice, it is difficult to analyse a phrase and comment on its usage if you do not know where it is coming from: in other words, current usage stems to a large extent from historical considerations. I do not think you can separate the two, actually, and even though few dictionaries pay attention to the etymology of words. In other words, there is a false dichotomy here.
     
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