Stand and Deliver

Confession time. I have a peeve. It’s the use of deliver where provide will serve perfectly well. I use deliver for tangible things and provide for intangible things. Like other peeves, this one has no basis in etymology or usage. Deliver is from Old French deslivrer and elsewhere, with the sense of setting free. Deliver as of goods is at least as far removed from the etymology as is deliver as of services. There are only a few instances where the word is faithful to its origin: one of them is Deliver us from evil.

What do the dictionaries tell us? The OED is conservative, having as its definition 8a only

‘To hand over, transfer, commit to another’s possession or keeping; specifically to give or distribute to the proper person or quarter (letters or goods brought by post, carrier, or messenger); to present (an account, etc.)’

The strong suggestion here is that delivery is of things. Oxford Dictionaries Pro, on the other hand, is more liberal, giving us as its second definition:

provide (something promised or expected)

Merriam-Webster, after giving us as its definition 2a

to take and hand over to or leave for another

also gives us

to come through with’ (‘the new car delivers high gas mileage’) and, used intransitively, ‘to produce the promised, desired, or expected results’: (‘can’t deliver on all these promises’).

The weight of evidence seems to be against my peeve. Like it or not, ‘deliver’ as of a service seems to be here to stay. Its meaning is clear and it can still be used for goods as well. My objection to it, I suppose, is to do with the way in which language is manipulated to hoodwink the public. Deliver is a more dynamic word than provide, capable of getting us to believe that the supply of something mundane is exciting and desirable. It is beloved of the writers of mission statements, as in, for (made-up) example: ‘Striving to deliver a world-class refuse collection service.’ But we’ll get used to it and it will lose its force to deceive.

Now, about those people who say referenda rather than referendums . . .


3 responses to “Stand and Deliver

  1. Pingback: I’m Going To Report You | Caxton

  2. The OED’s definition is still 1895, so it’s not surprising that it doesn’t extend to providing services or other immaterial things. Children are still delivered, however, and this clearly means ‘released’ rather than ‘handed over’ (by the stork?)T, so deliver us from evil is not the only current usage in this sense.


  3. Yes, the date of the last revision is something you have to watch with the OED.


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