Awareness of variation

Yesterday on ADS-L, Wilson Gray noted lease of life on The Doctors, “spoken by a forty-ish black man in the UCLA Medical Center”. It’s about the choice of preposition in the expression. Wilson said,

Noticed this for the time today. But, 10,300,000 hits. A movie entitled “Lease of Life” was released in 1954, the year that I graduated from high school. Who knew? I didn’t.

New, as far as I recalled, to me as well. Wilson and I expect on in the idiom. But our perceptions about this variation in P turn out to be skewed.

Wilson reported that the variation had been noted on ADS-L in 2001, when a poster wrote in puzzlement:

“A new lease on life” seems to make perfect sense, suggesting that life is once again yours to occupy, like a property. Why, then. is it always quoted as, “a new lease of  life”?

Then on the Eggcorn Forum, I found poster trischa (on 11/1/05) reporting the of variant as a possible eggcorn — she expected on — and suggesting rationales for both versions:

A new lease OF life is presumably a second go (as in reincarnation), whereas a new lease ON life implies you are already in residence, and have just been assured of an extension.

Next, I found a discussion of the variants on the English Language & Usage site, here, with Google Ngrams indicating that of came first and is the predominant variant. At this point it becomes relevant that all of us who questioned of are Americans, since the usage site added:

I won’t clutter up this answer with two more charts, but if you click on the link above, and toggle the corpus between American and British, you’ll see that almost all “new lease on life” usages are American.

Even more impressively, the OED‘s treatment of the expression — in sense 3 of the noun lease, one of those “not yet fully updated” entries (in this case, first published in 1902) — has only of, with no mention of an on variant:

fig. with reference to the permanence of occupation guaranteed by a lease; esp. in phr. a (new) lease of life . Also, the term during which possession or occupation is guaranteed.

The cites begin with a lease of blisse in c1595; the lease of life cites come along later:

1853   J. W. Carlyle Lett. II. 227   She was going to have a new lease of life with better health.

1878   J. R. Seeley Life Stein III. 397   Wherever Estates still existed, they seemed to have gained a new lease of life.

In sum: Wilson and I, and some other Americans reported on above, were aware only of the on variant, which is the one we use; almost surely, the of variant had come past us, but we didn’t notice it, or processed it as an easily correctible error. We were certainly not aware of the relative frequency of the two variants, or of the geographical (or social) distribution of the variants. Ordinary speakers are only hazily aware of such considerations — they can’t possibly have an overview of the sociolinguistic facts — and, unless they happen to have studied the variation in question or read about research on it, linguists are no more favorably situated than other speakers.

But linguists can investigate things when they come across a puzzle, which is what Wilson and I did. And discovered that we are apparently in the American wave of the future in this case.

(Bonus: Ben Zimmer has now added an Eggcorn Database entry for new leash on life in place of new lease on life.)


4 Responses to “Awareness of variation”

  1. Julian Lander Says:

    My copy of the “New Fowler” edited by Burchfield has an entry for lease of/on life noting that the first is British and the second US usage. But does anyone know whether applies when speaking of leasing property? I think that I (a US speaker) would say that I had a lease on a house. Would a British speaker have a lease “of” a house? Or is life a special case?

  2. The Ridger Says:

    Well, on the first page of an alleged half million Google hits is PLC – Residential long lease of a whole house (tenant insures and …
    For a lease of a house where the landlord insures and reinstates, see Standard document, Residential long lease of a whole house (landlord insures and …

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes, with literal lease, both on and of occur in the U.S. (and the U.K.). There are subtleties in the choice, most of which I don’t understand; but it looks like when lease refers to a document, on is very strongly preferred, and there probably are other fine-grained generalizations about usage in this area.

  3. Complex reversal: confuse « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] in various constructions: different from/to/than, at risk for/of (here), new lease of/on life (here), plus a great many Ps selected by Vs, for example in V to/toward(s), for cater, pander, and […]

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