Q From Geoffrey Zeger: I have heard that pining away relates to an unrequited lover who loses sleep or doesn’t eat, all the while thinking about the unavailable loved one. If it persists, the person will end up dead in a pine box (that is, a coffin). Is this accurate? What is your understanding of this phrase?
A Though that story might start to sound plausible after a drink or two in your local bar, it isn’t true. It’s a good example of what linguists call folk etymology, in which people make what might seem sensible suggestions based on their understanding of words, but get the wrong idea completely.
In this case there’s some reason for the confusion, because the verb to pine isn’t common and only turns up in this set expression and a very few other situations. The verb can mean to yearn intensely and persistently for something unattainable, or to suffer a decline because of grief or unrequited love. Pine in the sense of yearn is actually a variation on pain; they form a closely related pair of words that come from the same source — the Latin poena, a punishment or penalty. The name for the other sort of pine, the coniferous tree, comes from a quite different source, Latin pinus.
The pain type of pine seems to have been brought into the Germanic languages (including early English) through Christianity, which used the word to refer to the pains of Hell. The first sense in English (which was written down by King Alfred in his translation of Orosius’ Histories Against the Pagans in about 893) is that of causing someone to suffer, to torment them or to inflict pain on them. Three centuries pass before we find the more modern senses, the word having by then been influenced by Old French after the Norman Conquest. The meaning of pine then became that of undergoing pain or enduring suffering, which evolved into that of being wasted or feeble from having endured pain, or languishing or suffering as the result of intense emotion.
Incidentally, our modern word pain was also at first always used in the sense of punishment, as in old legal phraseology such as “on pain of death”, meaning that that will be the punishment if the law is broken. The idea of bodily suffering came along later.