October 19, 2004

You can't always get what you want

A friend once told me about an idiom that nearly ended a relationship. He was northern European, not a native speaker of English, sojourning at a university in the midwest. She was American, reading a map in the passenger's seat of the car he was driving. "OK," she said, "at the next intersection, you want to turn right."

He was furious. Internally, of course. "How does she presume to know what I want?" There were other issues here, but her idiom crystallized his sense of psychic intrusion, and he brooded about it for days.

Since the beginning of linguistic time, we've been mixing up what we want, what we need, what we can get: the balance of power between us and the world, the forces that drive us forward and hold us back. The words for these things seem to circulate through desire, power and time like the Gulf Stream through the Atlantic Ocean.

Prescriptivists insist that English may should be used only for permission, not ability, but the OED tells us that it's cognate with "a Germanic verb meaning 'to be strong or able, to have power'" -- and also with Lithuanian megti 'to like, be fond of', and Latvian megt 'to be used to, to be in the habit of.' Despite the prescriptions for will and shall, American English has bleached all the desire out of will, whose indoeuropean cognates range over meanings that include not only "choose" and "wish", but also "allow", "hope" and "command"; and no varieties of modern English retain much of shall's historical meaning 'to owe, to be guilty' -- though perhaps there's still a bit of guilty debt in should.

As for want, the OED tells us that it used to mean "To be lacking or missing; not to exist; not to be forthcoming; to be deficient in quantity or degree." Think of the nursery rhyme "for want of a nail..." The earliest citations for want meaning "to desire, wish for" are from the 18th century:

1706 E. WARD Wooden World Diss. (1708) 2 All such as want to ride in Post-haste from one World to the other.
1727 A. HAMILTON New Acc. E. Ind. I. v. 52 If either want to be separated during the term limited, there must be a Commutation of Money paid by the separating Party to the other, according as they can agree.
1751 G. LAVINGTON Enthus. Meth. & Papists III. (1754) 127 Cheats mingle the Flower or Seed among the Food of those whom they want to defraud.

The old meaning for want has largely dropped out of use, except for a few expressions:

1865 ‘L. CARROLL’ Alice in Wonderland vii. (1866) 96 ‘Your hair wants cutting’, said the Hatter.

Would it have comforted my Finnish friend to know that his companion was referring, anacronistically, to his requirements rather than his desires? Maybe. This song was current at the time:

You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You just might find
You get what you need


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 19, 2004 09:00 AM