Gifts, Presents, and a Brief History on the English Language

Have you ever wondered why the words “gift” and “present” are so different yet mean the same thing? Sure, they’re sometimes used in different contexts (people say “the gift of life” but never “the present of life” and a present (object) shouldn’t be confused with the present (time)), but generally, both mean the same thing: an item given to someone with an expectation of reciprocity, but accepting that the giver may not receive anything in return.

If it’s your birthday, you can thank your significant other for them giving you a birthday gift, but it’s just as acceptable to call their token a birthday present. And when it’s Christmas seasons, you can say you’ve started wrapping presents or wrapping gifts – both terms are synonymous and acceptable.

The only real difference between “gift” and “present” is the connotations. If we’re talking about a physical present, “gift” and “present” can be interchanged. However, while “present” refers to concrete tokens, “gifts” are often used for count nouns (e.g. when you receive gifts in the form of money) and abstract concepts. You could say a talented musician is gifted or has the gift of music, a speaker has the gift of gab, or a parent is taking time off work to spend time with their family and give them the gift of time.

Gifts can also be used as a noun adjective (e.g. gift shop, gift bag, gift basket), while presents can’t. And because of connotations, gift is the more formal term while presents are the more casual one referring to the physical box or bag with tokens inside them.


But Why Are These Words Similar?

But why do two very different words have generally the same meaning? In fact, if you look at the Late Modern English vocabulary, you might wonder why there are hundreds of synonyms that completely different words that mean the same thing. Why do “admit” and “confess” or “page” and “sheet” mean the same thing even if they are completely different words but both belong in the English vocabulary?

Well, a big reason for synonyms in the English we know today is because the language known as English began sometime around the 5th century around 450 AD. In the centuries that followed, the English language evolved so much that if we compare the earliest forms of English to the English we know today, you wouldn’t be able to understand a single word of Old English.

In the span of over 1,500 years, however, the English language began to borrow words from other languages. While it may be easy to trace some words’ origins (“chic” has French roots while “macho” has Spanish origins), some words are borrowed from dead languages, languages that are no longer spoken in everyday use or have a community of speakers. So you may not be aware that it is a borrowed word in the first place. For example, you probably don’t know that words like “picture,” “magnify,” or “famous” are borrowed from Latin.


Gift vs. Present: A Brief English History Explanation

In the case of gift and present, the two different words have the same meaning because their origins are different. The term “gift” actually traces back to Old English’s Germanic roots. It was the old Germanic root word which means “to give” and refers to both the act of giving and to the thing being given (probably why you can use the word “gift” today as both a noun and a verb). Used in Old English, a “gift” was a dowry a man had to present to a bride’s parents.

The word “present,” on the other hand, comes from French origins and doesn’t show up in use until the 13th century. The word was used for something that was presented or bestowed on another person that signified a transfer of possession. By the 13th century, the word referred to the object being transferred without expectations for payment.

This may be why gift has deeper abstract connotations than present. As the much older word with a wider range, it may be used to mean something that is given to another person regardless whether or not the object is tangible. However, the term “present’s” origins refers to a material object, hence why “gift” and “present” have different connotations.


A Brief Lesson on the English Language

To further understand the English language origins, let’s take a brief look at its history. This TED-Ed video provides an interesting and accurate summary on the English language.

Because of the happenings in Europe, languages were being spread around the continent and continued to evolve as these languages were mixed and borrowed. As a result, linguists can divide the evolution of English into four parts: Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English, and Late Modern English.


Old English

The Germanic tribes that invaded Britain spoke similar languages that linguists call Old English. It can be traced as far back as 450 AD and eventually died out in 1100. This is the farthest from the English we know today and is practically incomprehensible by modern English speakers. However, if you’re fluent in German, you may find some root words to German words still used to this day.

The most popular and important literature that exists of the Old English language is the epic poem of Beowulf. While the Germanic people have been spreading this story throughout their culture orally, the first known manuscript dates back somewhere between 975 and 1025 by an unknown Anglo-Saxon poet.

In this epic, the Geat hero Beowulf slays the monster Grendel as well as Grendel’s mother before becoming king of the Geats. He rules his home of Geatland (Götaland, the southern land of modern-day Sweden) for 50 years before being mortally wounded while battling a dragon.

On the left, you’ll see the Old English version of the first few lines of the epic; on the right, you’ll see the Late Modern English translation you’ll most likely understand better.


Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.


LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
till before him the folk, both far and near,
who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
gave him gifts: a good king he!


Middle English

In 1066, William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy invaded England and the French became the new ruling class of England. While French the language used for the upper classes, the lower classes spoke English, and this created a sort of class division based on the language and French fluency people spoke.

However, as early as 1100 until 1500, it appeared that French was not going to stomp out English as a language. Rather, English would eventually gain ground by the 14th century. Except this time, more French words were added into the vocabulary. This new language is what linguists call Middle English.

One of the popular works of literature from this time is The Canterbury Tales, or Tales of Canterbury in its literal Middle English translations. Written by the poet Geoffrey Chaucer sometime in the late-14th century, The Canterbury Tales features 24 stories of pilgrims travelling to Canterbury partaking in a storytelling contest.

Here’s an excerpt from The Wife of Bath’s Tale (or in Middle English, The Tale of the Wyf of Bathe) from The Canterbury Tales showing both the Middle English and Late Modern English translation.


A good WIF was ther, OF biside BATHE,
But she was somdel deef, and that was scathe.
Of clooth-makyng she hadde swich an haunt,
She passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt.
In al the parisshe wif ne was ther noon
That to the offrynge bifore hire sholde goon;
And if ther dide, certeyn so wrooth was she,
That she was out of alle charitee.

There was a WIFE of BATH, or a near city,
Who was somewhat deaf, it is a pity.
At making clothes she had a skillful hand
She bettered those of Ypres and of Ghent.
In all the parish there was no wife to go
And proceed her in offering, it is so;
And if one did, indeed, so angry was she
It put her out of all her charity.


You may notice that while the Middle English translation can still be somewhat confusing to read, it’s easier to see the evolution from Middle English to Late Modern English compared to Old English texts. Words like “wif” for “wife” or “deef” for “deaf” have different spellings but, when put side by side, you can see the evolution of the words put into text.


Early Modern English

As globalization started its roots and England began to actively communicate with other countries and people outside of their own, the English vocabulary started to shift. Linguists call the transition between Middle English to Early Modern English in the 1500s as the Great Vowel Shift, when the Britishstarted using shorter vowels. Add in the fact that this was the beginning of the Renaissance Era, which meant new words, easier printing to educate people, and more people were beginning to learn.

One characteristic of the Middle English period that definitely would have upset people who were sticklers to spelling and grammar is the way there was no correct spelling or grammar standards during this time. Because printing presses still weren’t as efficient, education was reserved for those who can afford it and books rarely ever reached the masses who couldn’t even read in the first place. But during the Early Modern English period, more efficient printing allowed the English language to be standardized, which also included the way words and names were spelled. By 1604, the first English dictionary was published.

One of the most popular literary authors during this period was William Shakespeare. While reading the original texts of his work like Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth is possible, the archaic language provides some difficulty to read and comprehend. It is English with words used today, but you have to remember that the way we speak today was different from the way people spoke centuries ago. Aside from trying to decode the way people spoke at the time, there are only a handful of words you’ll have to decipher in his works – these are usually words no one really uses in a casual conversation today.


Late Modern English

Finally, we have the Late Modern English period, which began in the 1800s and is still the form of English we use to this day. If the Early Modern English evolved from Middle English because of expansion, Late Modern English evolved from two things: the rise of technology brought about by the Industrial Revolution, and the colonizing period where foreign countries outside of Europe were taught to speak English and, in turn, the English language borrowed words for other countries as well.

Late Modern English also encompasses the various forms of English used in other countries. For example, both the United States and Britain speak English, but there’s a slight difference between how both countries speak. For example, a British person can say “crisps” while an American will call the same thing “chips.” Other countries also have their own way of speaking English and may incorporate more of their native words into their own English vocabulary.


Because of the complexity of the English language, it’s no surprise that the English vocabulary we have has different words that mean the same thing, albeit with a few different connotations. And the English you speak today – whether you use “gift,” “present,” or any synonym in your version of English – comes from centuries of language evolution.

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