Q&A: New lease of/on life?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, “New lease, who dis?”…

Q: Hi AWC, can you help? I’m having trouble with a lease.

A: Landlord issues? Not sure we can really…

Q: Oh, no, I’m referring to an idiomatic problem.

A: Wait, so it’s not automatic?

Q: Um, nope.

A: Systematic?

Q: What?

A: Is it hyyyyyydromatic?

Q: No, I told you. It’s idiomatic.

A: Ah yes. Sorry, got a little Grease stuck in the cogs there.

Q: I’m surprised you didn’t quote Rent considering we’re discussing leases. In particular, the idiom “new lease OF life”. Or is it in fact, “new lease ON life”?

A: Looks like you don’t know whether to flick the switch to OF or ON.

Q: Ha, cute. Yeah, I guess I don’t. Which is correct?

A: Don’t you want to learn about the word “lease” first?

Q: Sure, let’s do that.

A: “Lease” goes all the way back to the 1300s, when Old French was stuffing its baguette into every English word it could. In this case, the noun came from the French “les” – “a legal contract to convey property for a fixed period of time”.

Q: Similar to what it means today.

A: Yes, and it’s the reason why a tenant today is also a “lessee” (not “leaseee”) – due to that original French spelling. Make sense?

Q: More or lessee.

A: By the way, the verb form – as in “to lease a property” came from another French word, “laissier” meaning “allow, permit or to let”. That’s a reason you would often traditionally see “TO LET” signs for a property.

Q: Ah yes. My friends and I would enjoy drawing the letter “I” in the space and run off down the street laughing.

A: Kids will be kids.

Q: No, this was just last Tuesday.

A: Um, okay. Well, speaking of…er… toilets, the French word originally came from Latin “laxare” – meaning “to loosen or open”. 

Q: Laxatives!

A: Indeed. The word “release” also follows a similar origin story.

Q: Yes, I imagine it would be quite a release if you took enough of them… Oh – was that during the great bowel shift of the 15th century?

A: It was the great VOWEL shift, and no. Ahem, so let’s get back to our new leases OF and ON life.

Q: Yes please.

A: The idiom appeared first around 1800, originally as “a new lease OF life” – a way to describe recovering from illness. It implied that your life (much like a property) was once more able to be occupied.

Q: So that’s the answer – a new lease OF life.

A: Not so fast.

Q: Of course it’s not that simple.

A: Through the 1800s, the phrase expanded its meaning to take in anything that was renewed – not just someone who was sick. So a freshly painted building enjoyed a new lease of life. 

Q: Fair enough.

A: But in America, they also started saying “new lease ON life”. To them, it made a little more sense. You take out a lease ON a house, and so on.

Q: But OF was still dominant?

A: Absolutely. At the beginning of the 20th century, according to Google’s ngram data, “new lease OF life” was at least 10 times more popular. But then, around the 1930s, the ON version suddenly got, well, a new lease on life in America and it became the dominant variation there.

Q: What about Britain?

A: They stuck with “new lease of life” – and according to Google stats, while the gap has significantly closed, it remains more popular today everywhere but America.

Q: So, it’s actually one of those classic American vs British English stories?

A: Essentially, yes. If you live in America, today you’ll almost exclusively say “new lease ON life”. The rest of the world prefers OF but accepts both. For example, here in Australia, the Macquarie Dictionary lists OF first, but also includes ON as a valid variant.

Q: Surely there is a subtle difference?

A: In usage, nope. However, we recommend going with “new lease OF life” outside America – it’s the original and still dominant version.

Q: I feel like it’s only people who can have or be given a new lease ON life; there’s that sense of ownership. Whereas restoring a vintage motorbike or painting a fence, well I’ve GIVEN it a new lease OF life. Yeah?

A: That’s one way to look at it. But Americans would disagree. You’re better off using just one or the other.

Q: Yeah, I guess it doesn’t make sense to lease two houses at the same time.

A: A good way to look at it. 

Q: Well thank you for explaining this one. It’s been living rent-free in my head for weeks…



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