At the End of the Day.

Ben Yagoda does a deep dive into the history of the much-maligned phrase “at the end of the day,” starting out:

I love it when the OED gets frisky. It definitely does with the above formulation, which the dictionary pegs as as a “hackneyed phrase.” The meaning, I probably don’t need to point out, isn’t literal but figurative: not “when the clock strikes midnight,” but “eventually” or “when all is said and done.” The first OED citation is from 1974: “Eschatological language is useful because it is a convenient way of indicating..what at the end of the day we set most store by.”

But it was around and about long before that, principally — and fortunately, for the purposes of this blog — in Britain.

The Grammarphobia blog found it in an 1826 sermon:

Christ’s flock is but a little flock, comparatively considered. … They are but little in respect of their numbers. Indeed abstractly considered, at the end of the day, they will make an “innumerable company, which no man can number”; but, viewed in comparison of the wicked, they are but few.

The concluding paragraph:

The chart tells an interesting story in regard to Anglo-American differences: British predominance for most of the century, until (following a British slump in the ’80s) Americans caught up and, at the end of the day, surpassed their trans-Atlantic cousins.

More details, of course, at the link.

Comments

  1. To me, the “eventually” sense is quite distinct from the “when all is said and done” sense, and it is the latter which is hackneyed, e.g. used by television sports pundits.

  2. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I feel like the sermon sense might be more… literally figurative, if you can have such a thing. I mean, talking about the end of an actual period of time, even if in this case it’s the metaphorical day which is human life*, rather than one rotation of the earth.

    (*The day thou gavest Lord is ended, and so on.)

  3. J.W. Brewer says
  4. Ok, so many years and I still can’t help by giggle at the fact that someone’s surname is Yagoda. I’m sorry :/

    It’s like when the announcer (with glee) used my first name as my surname at an airport in a German-speaking place when I was late for my flight. It sounds funny in German, I get it. They said mr. [first name] rather than mr. [surname] and _giggled_. To be fair, my surname is difficult to pronounce for a German speaker.

  5. 1974?

    I can’t point out a specific source, but I thought that “day” in the context of summing up of what you have done during the day (a fiscal year of a sort) is a fairly common concept, both for the Bible and Western culture in general, that the phrase refers to this concept, and that it could be reinvented (especially in sermons).
    Am I wrong?

  6. David Marjanović says

    It could be, but it hasn’t often. In German, am Ende des Tages remains much rarer; you’re much more likely to encounter schlussendlich (“finally” backed up with “closure, completion, end”) or im Endeffekt for example.

  7. ktschwarz says

    “Hackneyed”? Sounds like a Burchfieldism, but it isn’t: as the citation dates 1974-1986 give away, this sub-entry does not come from Burchfield’s Supplements (additions to end were in the A-G volume in 1972). It must have been one of about 5000 entries that appeared for the first time in the 1989 edition, contributed by John Simpson’s New Words division. And it probably got in not because it was new in itself, but because, as Ben Yagoda discusses, *complaints* about it were new and vocal in the 1980s. They were on a tight schedule and didn’t have the time or resources to dig for older examples.

    Call me pedantic, but I don’t find this kind of opinionated definition frisky and lovable. The OED is for scholarship, it’s not the place for personal feelings — that is, it’s not the place for *unsigned and undated* personal feelings. It can be useful to include a selection of *attributed and dated* quotations on usage disputes, since those are also part of a word’s history, and they’re doing that at least on a small scale, e.g. under decimate and media.

    I don’t like “at the end of the day” myself — seems like fluffing out something simple with too many syllables, and I used to hear it a lot from my boss — but I don’t need the OED to validate my opinion.

    See Charlotte Brewer’s page in progress on Usage and correctness in the OED for much more discussion, especially the article on “Authority and Personality”.

  8. PlasticPaddy says

    For me “at the end of the day” feels like a Biblical allusion, but this does not fit the verses, e.g., the account of the Creation or Matthew 6:34 exactly…
    Luther
    Darum sorgt nicht für den andern Morgen; denn der morgende Tag wird für das Seine sorgen. Es ist genug, daß ein jeglicher Tag seine eigene Plage habe.

    Vulgate
    nolite ergo esse solliciti in crastinum crastinus enim dies sollicitus erit sibi ipse sufficit diei malitia sua

    KJV
    Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

  9. David Marjanović says

    Darum sorgt nicht für den andern Morgen; denn der morgende Tag wird für das Seine sorgen.

    So they updated the spelling, but not the rather stunning vocabulary.

    für den nächsten Morgen; denn der morgige Tag

    Also, is that the worst-translated verse in the entire KJV?

  10. Lars Mathiesen says

    Når alt kommer til alt is the hackneyed phrase we use here. A closer analogy to this is indeed ‘When all is said and done,’ but I’m not sure what the difference between the two English phrases is, apart from register which I don’t know what either of them are. I suspect some / all of these are from the Bible, because most turns of phrase are, but I’m not checking at this time of night.

    (‘At the end of the day’ would literally be Når dagen er omme [or slut] but nobody seems to be using that for the purpose).

  11. Jen in Edinburgh says

    It keeps making me think of ‘gus am bris an la’ on Highland gravestones, but that’s presumably the opposite – human life as the night before the endless day.

  12. In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.

    :-E

  13. Lars Mathiesen says

    Bekymrer eder derfor ikke for den Dag i Morgen; thi den Dag i Morgen skal bekymre sig for sig selv. Hver Dag har nok i sin Plage.

    Gören eder alltså icke bekymmer för morgondagen, ty morgondagen skall själv bära sitt bekymmer. Var dag har nog av sin egen plåga.

    Both 1917, and not tortuous at all. Archaizing even for the time, but that comes with the territory.

  14. David Marjanović says

    Kümmern would actually be more idiomatic than sorgen for me.

  15. Lars Mathiesen says

    Bekymrer eder ikke: Danish has since abandoned number accord in verbs (well before 1917, in fact, but because Bible), and the all-numbers imperative of the few verbs in [infinitive] -Cre is now a very strange beast in -Cr: bekymr, krydr, … that breaks phonotactics. There are many verbs in -Vre where the imperative is unproblematic, so even though reshaped imperatives like krydre may be spotted in recipes, I think systematic pressure makes that seem wrong. So you just rephrase instead. Newer Bibles have Lad være med at bekymre jer … and I skal ikke bekymre jer … which are perfect for negative commands.

    Recipe writers have a bigger problem. Du skal krydre sounds very intrusive so the agency-denying passive is often used: Retten krydres….

  16. Several comments mention “the Bible.”

    Hebrew אחרית הימים ‘the end of days’ appears several times in the Jewish Bible (as well as in the Talmud and later Jewish religious writings), but since the phrase has an eschatological meaning (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_eschatology), it is irrelevant to the English idiom at the end of the day.

  17. I mentioned it because I have a feeling that “at the end of the day” refers to a familiar image/metaphor.
    That I would recognized it even if I were not familiar with the set expression.
    But I can’t remember a good example.
    I associate it with Bible and yes, a “day” is mentioend there often, starting from Genesis (the six days of creation). But in biblical examples that come to my mind “day” measures labour.

  18. “Sufficient unto the day is the newspaper thereof.”–James Joyce, Ulysses, Aeolus chapter

  19. Kümmern would actually be more idiomatic than sorgen for me.
    IMD, sich sorgen um is a more passive “worry about”, while sich kümmern um is a more active “take care of, care for”.

  20. J.W. Brewer says

    Via the google books corpus you can find published examples of “at the end of the day” in, for example, early 19th century texts published in English. They exist, but the phrase does not seem to have a proverbial/gnomic/set-phrase kind of vibe in any of them.

  21. Lars Mathiesen says

    @Hans, that’s interesting because it’s more or less the other way around in current Danish. Sørge for is ‘arrange for’ (dinner, tickets, …) in a practical sense, without any implication of acting on a worry, while bekymre sig om is ‘worry’ without any implication of acting on it. Kummer is ‘suffering’ and sorg is ‘sorrow’ so there is no real reason the two verbs should come out as they did.

  22. @Lars: Oh, sorgen für works like in Danish; I was talking about the reflexive verbs.

  23. Lars Mathiesen says

    Oh, we don’t have †sørge sig for. Without the reflexive, the subject is the worrying thing: udviklingen bekymrer mig ~ jeg bekymrer mig om udviklingen.

  24. In German it’s bekümmert mich ~ kümmert mich (the latter obsolete except in the fixed expressions was kümmert mich XY “what do I care about XY”, das kümmert ihn nicht “he doesn’t care/worry about that”); ** (sich) bekümmern um doesn’t exist, only sich kümmern um “to take care of/care for”.

  25. Lars Mathiesen says

    Hmm, I should have put that in 3p to show the difference between object and reflexive forms: udviklingen bekymrer ham ~ han bekymrer sig om udviklingen. It looks like that is the same in German, except that Danish uses the prefixed verb in both constructions.

  26. Earliest references available in Google Books are to a literal sence, but a metaphorical one appears to be in Pepys’s Diary: “And that little Captain Bell, in one of the fireships, did at the end of the day fire a ship of 70 guns.” What is interesting here is that it was also a litteral “end of the day” because it was a one day battle. So I wonder, maybe this is the source of the “hackneyed phrase”, the “day” meant battle (as it sure did, like in someone winning or carrying the day etc.).

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