The mutable route of ‘commute’

Posted by on September 02, 2013

© Photodisc / Getty ImagesI used to dread this time of year. Childhood summers in the countryside were so long and absorbing that I virtually forgot all about school; its return every autumn was a rude interruption of my holiday idyll, especially on the first day back. I would struggle to shrug off sleep in the car on the early morning commute.

Granted, I soon got used to the routine again, and it was good practice (or effective conditioning) for commuting to work as an adult. Yet I don’t recall when commute entered my vocabulary. It wasn’t how I described the trip to either primary or secondary school, or to university either. Not until years of 9–5 work-going did I routinely called it commuting.

Commute has an interesting history. It entered English centuries ago as a verb meaning exchange or interchange (“They shall find … what is gold worth, and may quickly be commuted into it, great plenty of good grain” – Thomas Fuller, 1662). This reflects its origin in the Latin word mutare “to change”, whose meaning is more conspicuous in mutant, mutate, and transmute, and which also lies behind mutual and moult (US molt).

Commute later referred to changes to an obligation or agreement that made them less severe: in the 17th and 18th centuries there was much talk of commuting religious duties and penances. This led to a more general sense of “make less severe” – for example, a punishment or legal sentence might be mercifully commuted. This sense is still used, especially in legal contexts.

The “exchange” sense of commute allowed it to be used in various ways relating to financial transaction, including the act of combining several payments into one. So when people began buying season tickets for trains and streetcars in 19th century US, they called them commutation tickets. From here it was a short stop to commuter – at first “one who holds a commutation ticket” – and to commute, referring to this mode of regular travel to and from work.

Only after developments in mass transportation systems, then, did the familiar sense of commute arise to fill a lexical niche. London’s Daily Chronicle in 1906 mentioned the “many business men who practically divide their time between New York and Chicago, and ‘commute’ (the American term for taking season tickets).” The noun commute did not show up until the mid-20th century, though.

A Google Ngram graph shows how use of the verb increased as the daily commute by public (and then private) transport became an integral part of people’s lives, be it for work or education. But those who do it on foot, by bike or by private car use the word in a sense quite divorced from its origins in exchange and payment. En route to current use it has taken a path almost as winding as my old journey to school.

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Comments (2)
  • Aha so that’s where it came from! I overheard a conversation on the Luas a few months ago and the comment from one passenger about the commutants stayed with me until I got to Heuston, though I was determined to look it up and see if it was a ‘real’ word or a ‘mutant’. I promptly forgot all about it til now. The mutant commutants were obviously off tack somewhat.

    Posted by Helen on 26th September, 2013
  • Helen: Glad to remind you! There’s a cheap horror movie in the idea of mutant commutants, though I suspect no one would believe the filmmakers if they said it was inspired by etymology.

    Posted by Stan on 26th September, 2013
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