Bored of life? What Dr. Johnson didn’t say

Posted by on March 26, 2009

drudgeSamuel Johnson famously said that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. This is sometimes misquoted as “when a man is bored with London, he is bored with life” (and sometimes wrongly attributed to Oscar Wilde, but that’s another story). But what the great lexicographer definitely didn’t say was “when a man is bored of London, he is bored of life”.

Look in any dictionary and you will find that the “correct” preposition to use with bored is with. No one mentions bored of (not even hot-off-the-press books like the 2009 edition of Longman’s Dictionary of Contemporary English). Yet, whatever purists may think about it, our language data shows that, in 2009, more people say bored of than bored with. How has this happened?

For many years, the best electronic resource for observing English in use was the British National Corpus (BNC) – a digital collection of books, newspapers, recorded conversations, and much else, covering the widest possible range of subject matter in both “imaginative” (fictional) and “informative” media. When it launched in 1993, the BNC – with 100 million words of text – was at the cutting edge of language technology. Though still an excellent corpus, the BNC has been overtaken in sheer scale by the corpora we use now (typically containing about 2 billion words) and of course by the Web itself – an almost infinite reservoir of language data. This means we can analyse, in great detail, what people actually write and say when they communicate with one another (as opposed to asking them what they think they say or telling them what we think they should say).

And what does this data tell us? In the BNC (whose texts span the period roughly from 1975 to 1992), there are 246 instances of bored with, and just 10 hits for bored of. The sources are revealing, too: about half the bored of citations come from informal conversations, like this excerpt:

I reckon they should do tea here, I’m getting really bored of coffee I tell you.

The rest are from magazines like The Face (now sadly defunct) and the New Musical Express – texts aimed at a young readership, and often a good place to look for emerging language trends. So as recently as 1993, bored of was a rarity. As it happens, I touched on all this in an article written back in 2003, and noted there some figures from a Google search (Google, remember, was still in its infancy at that point): Google found 112,000 instances of bored of, but bored with still held a comfortable lead with about 340,000. Not so today: try a Googlefight pitting bored of against bored with and bored of is now narrowly in front.

There’s a possible distractor here in the phrase “Bored of the Rings”, which surfaces in various parodies of Tolkien’s well-known trilogy – there is a book of this name, a movie, a fansite and even an entry in Wikipedia. So let’s try a search that rules this out: bored of it vs. bored with it. This time the version using “with” maintains a slender lead, but this is unlikely to last. If you listen out, you’ll hear that most people under 35 say bored of – presumably by analogy with tired of – and it can’t be denied that this is, phonologically speaking, less hard work: bored of trips off the tongue more easily. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for “of” to be recognised, first as an acceptable alternative to “with”, and (eventually, no doubt) as the standard preposition to use in these circumstances.

Comments (11)
  • Michael’s post about bored of reflects a change in the language that we can see and measure over a relatively short space of time. This is a genuine change of prepositional choice, but the preposition of has also been noticeable in a grammatically dubious context, replacing the auxiliary have – You should of heard what he said last night!

    One obvious reason for this is that in speech, “should have” and “should of” sound exactly the same, with the vowel being an unstressed schwa. In normal speech, it’s impossible to detect whether the speaker is saying have or of. But occasionally you hear people stressing the vowel, and they’re clearly saying of.

    It’s relatively rare to see it in written English – the BNC has only a handful of citations in the written components as opposed to the spoken components, suggesting that it’s a recent phenomenon. But I came across an instance the other day in a book published nearly 30 years ago, The Rubicon File by A.J. Elder (Architectural Press 1980), in which the narrator opines at one point:

    I fear we may not of heard the last of that.

    And rather like that narrator, I fear we may not of heard the last of bored of.

    Posted by Stephen Bullon on 30th March, 2009
  • This is most interesting, Michael. The Corpus of American English confirms your observation that bored of is used more and more often. It’s most frequent in fiction and spoken language and much less so in magazines and newspapers. However, diachronic studies show that the overall frequency of the preposition of has been decreasing over the 20th century. Obviously the downward trend does not show in all the word combinations that of is part of.

    Posted by Sarolta on 30th March, 2009
  • Thanks for your comment, Sarolta – I had no idea about the steady decline of “of”, and can’t even guess what could be behind this (it is after all the 2nd most frequent English word in most corpora). Thanks also for the reminder about the U.S. corpus – for those who don’t know, this excellent (free) resource is available at http://www.americancorpus.org/. It’s a pretty large corpus (385 million words) of American English, and texts are classified by genre (five main categories) and by date of publication (1990-2008) – allowing the user to research the kinds of question that Sarolta describes here. I should of thought of that!

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 31st March, 2009
  • Very interesting. I wonder to what extent ‘of”s gain over ‘with’ in the context of ‘bored’ is the result of the more or less (let’s not go there!) synonymity between ‘bored’ and ‘tired’ that presumably led to the misquoting of Dr Johnson mentioned by Michael at the start. Do speakers, when replacing one word with a synonym also carry over its grammar patterns and common collocates? After all, we have ‘tired of’, ‘sick of’, ‘weary of’ – ‘bored of’ seems like an obvious construction.

    We don’t see ‘tired/sick/weary with’, so it’s not a two-way street. Is ‘bored’ losing its ‘with’ and having an ‘of’ forced on it because ‘bored’ is the exception in this ‘synonym set’ and must therefore be made to conform?

    Wish I had time to check what’s happening with ‘fed up with’ – is it losing its ‘of’ too?

    Posted by Diane Nicholls on 31st March, 2009
  • I am glad that someone mentioned “fed up with”. To my ear, “fed up with” and “fed up of” carry equal weight, i.e. either sounds “correct” to me, whereas only “bored with” sounds correct (instead of “bored of”), although I admit there is little logic to this. (I am _well_ over 35, it has to be said).

    By the way, don’t we have “sick with”? How about “sick with fear”?

    Posted by Mike Ellwood on 17th April, 2010
  • Re. SICK WITH: good question, Mike. I just checked our corpus and SICK OF is usually followed by words like “the sight of” or “hearing about”, while SICK WITH is followed either by an illness word (“sick with flu/dysentery” etc, or by a negative-emotion word like “worry”, “envy”, or “disappointment”. So the collocates point to different meanings of SICK, and this happens a lot (compare: heartily sick, dangerously sick, and violently sick. But the variation at BORED is less easy to explain.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 18th April, 2010
  • Bored “of” always jars when I hear it – and I’m pleased to have found this article reinforcing my preferred version. But, I do wonder about another option……..why not Bored “by”?

    Posted by Malcolm Fereday on 30th April, 2010
  • It is only in the last two years that I have really noticed that “bored of” has taken precedence over “bored with” in South Africa, and I must admit I did not really notice until this year that I have not heard a single instance of “bored with” in the last few months – and then I began to wonder if I have always been incorrect and was delighted to find Samual Johnson’s words about London correctly quoted. Although I understand that living languages change and grow over time it is satisfying to retain some of the old usage while one can.

    Posted by Heather Kleynhans on 13th August, 2010
  • The “bored of” construction always bothered me as a teacher. My middle school students used it exclusively; I never heard them say, for instance, “I’m bored with English today.” I was reading a favorite blog the other day and came across the “bored of” use at the start of the post. So I decided to see what I could find on the Internet about this change. Always interesting to see how language changes.

    Posted by Bruce on 12th October, 2010
  • For some years (how they fly!), I only heard/saw “bored of” from teens or younger people. Now it can be seen and heard from adults and in publications. It grates on my ear…but nothing stands in the way of linguistic evolution, especially when it begins with the young. After all, this is how languages live and develop among humans.

    Posted by D. Robinson on 15th August, 2012
  • Thanks, D. Robinson. I suppose the ‘teens and younger people’ who were using this when you first started noticing it are now in their thirties (and for anyone younger, ‘bored of’ is the default). This post was written over three years ago, and the ‘slender lead’ I reported then for ‘bored with’ seems to have been overturned: the same Googlefight today shows ‘bored of’ taking a narrow lead. As you say, nothing is going to stand in the way of this change.

    Posted by Michael on 17th August, 2012
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