The Hidden Power of Words: ‘To-Do’

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to-do |tə ˈdo͞o|
noun [ in sing. ] informal
a commotion or fuss


Today’s Word: To-Do

Common Phrases and Usage in American English: “Sarah’s winter party is going to be such a to-do. I hear they’re renting a portable ice rink, penguins, snow-maker and a mini-ski lift for some appropriate wintertime ambiance.” “Grocery shopping is at the top of my to-do list.” “Where do you keep your to-do list? In a notebook or in a smartphone app?”

My Take on the Definition and Guess as to the Origin: As you can see from the definition above, there’s ‘to-do’ as in a big event, commotion or goings-on, and then there’s also ‘to-do’ as in a list of things you need to get done. The latter definition is what I was originally aiming for in this entry, by the way. I’m going to guess ‘to-do’ is a relatively new word. It certainly sounds like it is a slang word (at least to me), so I’m going to guess it will have origins in 20th century American or British English.

Drumroll Please:

ORIGIN late 16th cent.: from to do as in much to do, originally meaning ‘much needing to be done’ but later interpreted as the adjective much and a noun; compare with ado.

Whoa, I was way off on that guess! Just goes to show that people in the late 16th century also had things that needed to get done. confirmed the usage of the word in 1576 but I’d like to have more information. Let’s take a look at the Online Etymology Dictionary:

to-do (n.)
1570s, from the verb phrase to do, from O.E. to don “proper or necessary to be done” (see to). Meaning “disturbance, fuss” is first recorded 1827.

Well, there you have it, ‘to-do’ has origins way back in Old English and frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were another older phrase or usage that we’ve missed, either in Old English or another language.

Note how the word is first used to describe tasks, while only later does ‘to-do’ refer to a big fuss or commotion. I suppose the latter use refers somehow to all the tasks and chores that must be completed to make an event or occasion a ‘to-do’.

The next time you start thinking about your to-dos, remember there’s nothing new under the sun. In essence, “you gotta do what you gotta do.” So simple, yet so true!

Now to you…what are your thoughts on the word ‘to-do?’ Were you surprised at the origin of the word?

Note: Dictionaries used for definitions and references are The New Oxford American Dictionary, Version 2.2.3 (118.5), Apple Inc., Copyright 2005-2011, The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary,, based on the print version of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate® Dictionary, Eleventh Edition and The Online Etymology Dictionary,

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Rashelle Isip is a New York City-based professional organizer and productivity consultant who helps people get organized so they can stress less, have more fun, and be happier at home. Her work has been featured in Good Housekeeping, Fast Company, Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, Business Insider, and The Atlantic. Get access to her free guide, 10 Simple Ways to Make Your To-Do Lists More Effective, by clicking here.