linguistics and lexicography Love English

Word lovers, meet your match

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© DIGITAL VISIONMacmillan Dictionary’s word of the day and phrase of the week features are a match made in heaven for word lovers and English-language learners. One recent phrase of the week – in the middle of Wimbledon’s tennis matches – was meet your match. Matches, matches, everywhere. Where did they come from, and how are they related?

The match in meet your match is the same match we see in the phrases be no match for someone (if you’re not as good as them) and be more than a match for someone (if you’re better). The expression goes all the way back to Middle English and has been in regular use since – sometimes in variant or related forms, like find one’s match, or prove (oneself) a match for something.

Match itself is centuries older and has quite complex origins. It was derived partly from the Old English word gemæcca, which lost its ge- prefix through aphesis. This is a process where the initial sound of a word is dropped, as in because → cos, it was → ’twas, and acute → cute.

Originally, match meant an equal, or a partner, a complement, one of a pair. Then gradually it developed a new sense, of a contest between two ‘matched’ parties or players. These are the kind of matches that take place at Wimbledon and other sporting events; they appear as sense 2 in Macmillan Dictionary. In US English the word game is more usual in this context.

So common is this use of match that it has produced many set phrases for different types. Some are official: a test match takes place between different countries, an exhibition match is played for entertainment more than competition, and a grudge match occurs between fierce rivals. Others are unofficial and may be unpleasant, like a shouting match or a slanging match. So the ‘contest’ idea in match can be broadly applied.

The verb match came from the noun match by conversion, also called zero-derivation. (I looked at conversion briefly in a post about Shakespeare last month.) So it’s an example of the often reviled process of verbing.

In Middle English the verb match had to do with marriage, a usage we still find today. But it soon broadened to denote other types of companionship, cooperation, or contest between people, including a sense of being identical, similar, equivalent, or complementary. Thus Shakespeare, in Venus and Adonis (1.1.1162): ‘all love’s pleasure shall not match his woe’. Because not all matches are made in heaven.

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Stan Carey

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