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Why can't errands just run themselves?

Sunday evening is a great time to relax, binge-watch something on Netflix and come to terms with the fact that Monday is coming and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

It’s also a great time to revisit the list of errands you promised yourself you’d run this weekend but couldn’t quite get to due to a particularly riveting season of "Scandal."

But now the dry-cleaning still needs to be picked up, there’s a stack of packages still waiting to go to the post office and the car is still in desperate need of an oil change. Pretty mundane stuff, right? No wonder you opted for Kerry Washington. 

A listener recently asked why it is that we “run” errands. We think that’s a good question, and it got us wondering about the word “errand” in general.

To find out more, University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan went to the Oxford English Dictionary, where she found out that “errand” goes all the way back to Old English.

When it first shows up, an “errand” refers to a message to a third party. 

“In these early instances, you’ll have expressions like one ‘said the errand’. You’re delivering the message, so you ‘say’ the errand. Also in Old English, we see ‘errand’ come to mean the actual going with the message. In other words, it becomes the mission to deliver the message,” Curzan said. 

From that point, it’s easy to see how “errand” comes to refer to any short journey we take to do a simple task or convey a message. 

It also explains why most would agree that “errands” are tasks we have to leave home to go do. They’re different from things we do around the house like mopping the floor, replacing a burned-out light bulb or responding to emails.

“Running an errand” doesn’t show up until around 1800 before really taking off during the 20th century. In the 19th and early 20th centuries it was also very popular to say “do an errand”, but that’s not one we hear much anymore.

There. Now that we’ve learned a little bit about the origin of the word “errand”, there’s still a little bit of weekend left to take care of at least one thing on that list before Monday rears its ugly head. 

Or, there’s always next weekend. After all, there’s a lot of "Scandal" left to watch.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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