It’s a common enough word that few people stop to think how odd comeuppance really is. Why should it mean the punishment or fate that someone deserves, a just retribution or just deserts?
The Oxford English Dictionary directs enquirers about its origin to sense 74 of the verb come, implying that it derives from come up. That’s reasonable, since the most common early written form in the US — where the word seems to have been invented around the middle of the nineteenth century — was come-up-ance, which we may guess is the situation or consequence of having come up.
The OED and some other dictionaries suggest it refers to coming up before a judge or court for judgement. That’s supported by the earliest evidence for the related expression come-uppings, known in American English from rather later:
I was led away, and I got my come-uppings, or the other fellow’s come-uppings, for I wa’n’t to blame any, and I always said so, and I guess the judge would say so too, if it were to do over again.
The Minister’s Charge, by William Dean Howells, 1886.
Curiously, come-upping is recorded in Cornish dialect in 1880 in the sense of a flogging. It’s possible that it’s a quite separate form, which was taken to the US by migrants and became associated with come-up-ance.
Search World Wide Words
Recently added pieces
Vape; Bridegroom; Lilly-low; The Language Myth by Vyvyan Evans; Boot and trunk; Zoilism; Fish-faced; Poach; Immensikoff; Habiliments; The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker; Agister; The Word at War; Not so green as you’re cabbage-looking; Peely-wally; Draw a line in the sand; Porphyrogeniture.
Support World Wide Words!
Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.
Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select your preferred site and click Go!