More Musings: This Time On a Word


Woody and I have a young man living with us whose native language is not English. Suffice it to say (I love the alliteration of that phrase), we get frequent opportunities to talk about English.

And so it was that I found myself explaining what I meant by an “errand” the other morning. We had errands to run, I’d told him. Then, seeing his expression, “Do you know what an errand is?”

Yes, it does sound like it could be a track and field event. It was a totally new word.


Irrelevant photo, in case you’ve not seen enough of it. Cheers.

Errands, I found myself saying, are places we go, away from the house. But that wasn’t enough. There are lots of places we go, away from the house that are not considered errands. Running out to visit a friend is not an errand, it’s a visit. I remember them fondly.

Errands are brief stops, and we accomplish something. A task is involved. Errands take us to places we have to go: the dry cleaners (well, back in the day when people actually had clothes that had to be dry cleaned), the food store, the hardware store. The bank. The post office.

Errands aren’t chores, which by definition are supposed to be unpleasant. “It was such a chore,” was never said about anything enjoyable.

Errands can be fun. Stopping by the farmer’s market on a warm summer Saturday morning comes quickly to mind. It’s an errand — I have to buy food. And it’s one I truly enjoy and look forward to, especially in the days when I could bring Sasha. I’m eager to get Jackson on a lead, meeting new people, new dogs, new smells. I can buy my fresh, local produce and get Jackson some socialization time. Hopefully this summer. Maybe. If we accomplish more than the initial task, is it still an errand?

What a mixed bag English is. Damn all those invaders over the centuries; the Anglo-Saxons, the Romans, and the Vikings, all left their mark, including their language, on the tongue we now claim as our own (plus the more recent influence of French, Spanish, and Italian). And aren’t we native English speakers grateful we could learn it from birth? I certainly am.

How about you? How might you assess your native tongue? OR, how might you define an errand? And, please don’t look it up; I didn’t this time.

20 Responses

  1. Nancy Drye
    | Reply

    I think of errands as neutral–just some small trip to accomplish something, not a chore, but also not something fun; your examples tell me that I need to get more fun errands in my life!
    Cheated and looked up the definition and was surprised to see the element of an errand being done for someone else. So are our errands done for our households, not just ourselves, or has the meaning been diluted to cover any little trip to pickup or deliver?
    No kidding about learning English from birth. I’ve not successfully learned another language, but have studied French, German and Chinese (as well as travel Spanish, Italian and Japanese) and 4 years of high school Latin. The Latin has been invaluable for all Romance languages and English in terms of vocabulary, but because it was only written and not spoken in class, I feel it hindered my later efforts at learning to speak another language. But studying Chinese especially gave me a very deep admiration for the English skills of the many Chinese students I see at the University. The differences in structure and sound are vast. And truly, language is the doorway to understanding how a culture thinks about things like time, relationships, everything! Are you familiar with Deb Fallows’ book DREAMING IN CHINESE? Very relevant to this discussion; highly recommend it.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Nancy. “Done for someone else”. Hmmm. Perhaps that’s a definition written by a man? I would never have included that aspect. I’m thinking how both hubs seemed to welcome, almost expect, to be sent to the store on their way home from work. I was always expecting them to resent the intrusion. Curious idea: a gender distinction in definitions. Would make a good masters thesis for someone.

      I’ve not heard of the Deb Fallows book, though her name rings a bell. And yes on how language gives us insight into the culture. There’s something with verbs in Russian that reflects differently on locus of control than we have; I was hoping the specific example would come back to me. Alas.

      So glad you added your voice here. Thank you.
      Janet Givens recently posted…More Musings: This Time On a WordMy Profile

  2. Darlene Foster
    | Reply

    To me, an errand is a quick task that needs to be done. Teaching English as a Second Language and having homestay students live with us was always fun as I tried to explain a word or phrase meaning. We tend to take our language for granted, don´t we.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I’d forgotten you’ve also had homestay students with you. I learned much about my own language talking with ours over dinner. And now, once again.
      Why do we “take” pictures? Where do we take them to, one asked me I one year. We do indeed take much for granted. Thanks for adding your voice, Darlene. A good reminder.
      Janet Givens recently posted…More Musings: This Time On a WordMy Profile

  3. Arlene Smith
    | Reply

    These days errands have taken on a whole new meaning – they are a way to get out of the house! Before, errands were undertaken with more reluctance. “Oh, I have to go to the grocery store and the post office.” Now, it’s, “I get to go out! I’m going to the grocery store and the post office.!”

  4. Carolyn
    | Reply

    In Scotland we use the word “messages” for errands. I don’t know that I’d like to work my way through that one.

  5. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    Errands get me out of the house, masked and bundled up. (Yep, Florida is cold for a few days this month.) My latest errand was the usual: a run to the grocery store. I think trips to the dentist or doctor are appointments, not errands. You might point that out to your house guest, the difference between the two.

    As it happens, today my blog features a Danish word, and I’m not spilling the beans here.

    You and Woody are generous souls. Your house guest is lucky to have you as host, as I once experienced.
    Marian Beaman recently posted…How to Hygge, The Comforts of Home, Part 2My Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Yes, good point, Marian. Appointments are not errands. But why not? Must an errand be more impulsive, spur of the moment, unplanned? Hmmm. You’ve got me thinking again Marian.
      Janet Givens recently posted…More Musings: This Time On a WordMy Profile

  6. Terri Lyon
    | Reply

    I like the idea that errand has a positive connotation. I would have defined errand as a chore that you complete outside the house. Interesting how your perception of a task can change your attitude.
    Terri Lyon recently posted…I Want To Be an Activist, But I’m AfraidMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Yes, I think I had that negative connotation too, Terri, decades ago. That must be what I was always surprised my husband wasn’t irritated I’d I asked him to stop and get xyz on his way home. Truly never seemed to phase him. Wherever did that negative bent on it begin? Hmmm. Thanks.
      Janet Givens recently posted…More Musings: This Time On a WordMy Profile

  7. Katharine Malaga
    | Reply

    It comes from Old English “ararende” that means ‘message.”

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks, Katharine. I wonder how we got from message to errand. The former seems far removed from the behavior, action-oriented “errand.” Hmmm. Something to chew on.
      Janet Givens recently posted…More Musings: This Time On a WordMy Profile

      • Carolyn
        | Reply

        Well, that at least explains the Scottish “messages” – the latter always denotes going to pick up groceries in my mind.

  8. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Yes, English is a difficult, highly nuanced, linguistic hodgepodge. I’m glad I didn’t have to learn it as a second language! Like others, I seem to tolerate errands better these days, perhaps as an excuse to get out. But I still prefer my errands to be in small, manageable batches. Fortunately, we do most of our business within a five mile radius, so I’m able to avoid the worst of the traffic in our rapidly growing city.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      A “linguistic hodgepodge,” Excellent metaphor, Tim. A five mine radius? hmmm. I see you doing as many as you can on your bicycle. Yes?
      Janet Givens recently posted…More Musings: This Time On a WordMy Profile

      • Tim Fearnside
        | Reply

        Ah, yes. We do make exceptions for the bike. I did manage to ride as much as I drove last year, which was undoubtedly a first for me, (and attributable, in part, too Covid). Unfortunately, I live on a fairly challenging hill — good for exercise, but not so good for day-to-day errands. I’ve considered adding an electric commuter with storage capacity to my small “quiver” (currently, just two bikes), but haven’t gotten there yet. I like the idea of reducing my gas consumption further…

  9. Janet Morrison
    | Reply

    I am grateful I learned English as my native language because it has to be incredibly confusing and difficult to learn. I admire how well immigrants do at learning it and I envy them of knowing more than one language. I took Spanish in school, but I retain very little of it. Reading it is much easier than understanding it when spoken.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Janet

      I too took Spanish in school — two years in high school and another two in college. The time it came back to me the most was when I was trying to learn Russian in the Peace Corps. It was like I had a “foreign language” part of my brain and when I’d go to respond “fine thank you, and you?” in Russian, out would come Spanish. You may be surprised to discover there is more in there than you realize. When I travel to Cuba, more returns to me after a few days. But still, not enough to ever call me fluent. Thanks for stopping. Looking forward to seeing you this week via Zoom.
      Janet Givens recently posted…More Musings: This Time On a WordMy Profile

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