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Sit a spell

Posted by Smokey Stover on April 20, 2006

In Reply to: Sit a spell posted by James Briggs on April 20, 2006

: : What is the origin of the phrase "sit a spell?" I've looked up spell in the OED and there are several possibilities, but nothing references "sit a spell."

: I think that this means to sit for/a while. 'Spell' in this context derives from the Old English 'gespelia' meaning "substitute" as in one group of workers substituting another by taking over their duties; ie one group working for a while/time and then being freed of the task.

You might wish to augment Dr. Briggs' explanation, good as it is, with what the OED says, at some length: "3. a. A continuous course or period of some work, occupation, or employment; a turn or bout at something. Also without const.
1706 E. WARD Wooden World Diss. 34 He..believes there is no more Sin in taking a Spell with a w h o r e, than in pumping a leaky Vessel. 1804 NELSON 4 Nov. in Nicolas Disp. VI. 257 The Termagant Sloop will be going to Lisbon{em}she has had a long spell of service. ...
b. dial. and Austral. An interval or period of repose or relaxation; a rest.
Examples from 1863 to 1975 may be found in Dict. Newfoundland English .
c1845 J. TUCKER Ralph Rashleigh xi. 146 Both men took a hoe and gave the children a spell. 1847 J. O. HALLIWELL Dict. Archaic & Provincial Words 781/2 Spell,..pleasure; relaxation. Somerset. 1852 MUNDY Antipodes 83 Your carriage horses will be all the better for a 'spell', (a rest). 1862 J. S. DOBIE Jrnl. 10 Sept. in S. Afr. Jrnl. 23 Invited to stay and give my horse a day's spell. 1865 TUCKER Austr. Story i. 84 The only recompense light his pipe and have a 'spell'. 1867 M. A. BARKER Station Life in N.Z. 128 We were all so breathless that a 'spell' (do you know that means 'rest'?) would have been most acceptable. 1900 H. LAWSON On Track 107 He did not go back to work that night; he took a spell. 1931 G. L. NUTE Voyageur 96 Every five miles or so a halt was made to rest the dogs and to allow the men to smoke. These stops were termed 'spells' or 'pipes', and the voyageurs spoke of a day's journey as being so many spells or pipes. .. c. spell oh! (or ho!), used as a call or signal, usu. to rest or cease working; also = prec.
1837 MARRYAT Dog Fiend I. ix. 94 'Come now,' said Coble, tossing off his glass, 'spell oh!{em}let's have a song while they take their breath'. 1841 R. H. DANA Seaman's Man. 124 Spell ho!..used as an order or request to be relieved at work by another. ...
4. a. A period or space of time of indefinite length; usu. with adjs. denoting duration, as long, short, etc.
1728 MORGAN Algiers Il. iv. 265 The Corsairs met with a brisk Reception and were warmly entertained for a good Spell. 1767 GIBBON Let. to Holroyd 29 Apr., I hope to take a pretty long spell in town. ...
b. A period having a certain character or spent in a particular way.
1830 SOUTHEY Lett. IV. 175 The very sight of you..would go far towards giving these poor girls a spell of better health present. 1885 'MRS. ALEXANDER' At Bay i, Then came a spell of wandering, of high play, of rage for costly excitement, which..beggared him in a few years. 1885 R. W. DIXON Hist. Ch. Eng. xix. III. 330 After a grievous spell of eighteen months on board the French galleys.

c. by spells, at intervals, now and again.
1788 Massachusetts Spy 4 Sept. 3/2 It had..rained by spells for three days before. 1821 in Cobbett Rur. Rides I. 2 To-day the fog came by spells. 1854 THOREAU Walden xiii, I had an old axe..with which by spells in winter days..I played about the stumps. ...
d. for a spell, for a time. In U.S. without prep.; also a spell ago, some time ago.
(a) 1834 [SEBA SMITH] Lett. J. Downing x. 208 Mahogany was as cheap as pine boards was a spell ago. c1850 'DOW, JR.' in Jerdan Yankee Hum. 88 That woman who broomed me out of the house a spell ago.
(b) 1745 D. GIDDINGS Jrnl. 27 May in Essex Inst. Hist. Coll. XLVIII. 299, I..continued in ye Trench a Spell. 1834 [ SEBA SMITH] Lett. J. Downing xxvii. 179 So I whistled Yankee Doodle a spell."
I hope you're not having a cold spell in your part of the country. I hope instead that you have a spell of good luck. ♪ SS ♪