NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT – Considering an expensive gift this season for someone you love? CNBC urges you to be careful: “What to think about before you gift a Peloton or other big-ticket item this holiday.” And if by chance you’re as curmudgeonly about grammar as I, you bristle at this casual use of “gift” as a verb.
Yet the usage is everywhere. “Holiday gifting made easy!” we’re assured by Nordstrom. Amazon offers what it calls “Prime Gifting.” U.S. News and World Report actually manages to use the word as verb and noun in the same headline: “How to Gift Stock and Other Financial Gifts.”
Grammarians have battled for years over whether “gift” and “give” are interchangeable verbs. It’s time somebody gave a definitive answer. And the answer this Grammar Scrooge gives is no. Except in a narrow set of circumstances — I will describe them shortly — we can never gift a thing to another person. We can only give. To those who would give a different answer, let me give you the gift of explaining why you’re wrong.
The use of “gift” as a verb has ancient roots. Everyone who puzzles over this conundrum points out that the Oxford English Dictionary attests this usage as early as the 16th century. True enough. The OED lists early examples aplenty. But these early examples share a vital aspect that’s been left unremarked by the commentators. Once we understand that aspect, we’ll understand why our current fad for “gifting” is misguided.
The oldest citation is from a British poem, “A Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife Lapped in Morel’s Skin,” probably published around 1550 and believed to have provided the foundation for “The Taming of the Shrew”: “The friendes that were together met He gyfted them richely with right good speede” — “He” in this case meaning “God.”
Among the OED’s many other examples we find a 1639 reference to “a parcel of ground which the Queen had gifted to Mary Levinston” and an 18th century reference from Henry Fielding to “the Inspiration with which we Writers are gifted.”
But notice what they have in common. The queen already owned the parcel before gifting it; she did not acquire it in order to make a present of it. As for Fielding, he is referring to a natural-born quality, gifted if at all by God — precisely the point being made by the unknown author of “Morel’s Skin.” Nearly all the OED’s early examples involve either a giver who gifts what the giver already owns, or a situation in which the giver is Nature or God.
This distinction is subtle but important. There’s a world of difference between gifting a thing you already own and going out to buy a thing you don’t.
As it happens, the distinction is also consistent with the traditional usage in law. Every case I have found prior to the 20th century that uses “gift” as a verb refers to a transfer of an asset that the giver already owns. Most involve inheritance. (Quite a few, I sorrow to report, involve slavery, for the courts in the antebellum South adjudicated many a dispute over the ownership of human beings.) Similarly, books published in the 19th century overwhelmingly reserve the usage for gifts either from God or from the giver’s existing assets.
This usage is in keeping with one of the important but vanishing uses of gift as a noun: a reference to a right or honor that can be transferred, as in the phrase “within my gift.” The grant of certain titles is within the gift of the monarch. The imposition of terms of surrender is within the gift of the winning side. “Keep on improving,” wrote a New York pastor in 1868 to a misbehaving parishioner, “and you shall have the highest title within my gift.”
This is the sense in which the word is used in an old and much-quoted Pennsylvania case: “There is a virtual unanimity of opinion among all reasonable men that it is against public policy for a public official to appoint himself to another public office within his gift.”
Historical usage isn’t always the best guide, but here we would do well to preserve the older sense in which “gift” and “give” are both verbs but carry two different meanings. So let’s reserve “gifting” for the situation in which we part with something we already own. I can gift to Goodwill that sweater I no longer wear, but the sweater I buy new at the mall as a Christmas present I can only give. If I buy you a gift card for the bookstore, I can only give it to you. But if you gave me the card last year and it’s not to my taste, I can gift it to a friend. (Apparently that’s no longer considered impolite.)
And for those who believe no column is complete without a mention of Donald Trump, let’s use coverage of the U.S. president to supply two closing examples of proper praxis. Earlier this year, when the prime minister of Israel visited the White House, Newsweek headlined: “Benjamin Netanyahu Says He’s Gifting Donald Trump Case of Wine.” This usage was incorrect unless Netanyahu already owned the wine before deciding to give it as a gift. On the other hand, when Donald Trump Jr. told an interviewer last year that his father was a “re-gifter,” he was using the word correctly, because his example was Trump Sr.’s evident habit of passing on to his son monogrammed gifts he himself had received but didn’t want.
Re-gifting a shirt isn’t the same as transferring land or title. Still, the distinction I’m advocating preserves both verbs but gives them independent meanings. To separate our usage this way also imbues the verb “to gift” with a particular power. Gifting becomes a sacrifice in a way that giving never quite is. When we gift, we part with a thing that has been with us for a while; when we give, our possession was always planned to be brief.
Bloomberg View columnist Stephen L. Carter is a professor of law at Yale University. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”
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