Usage Notes

The Provenance of 'Providence'

As well as 'province' and 'provenience'

What to Know

Provenance and provenience share the meaning of "origin" or "source," with provenance also referring to the history of ownership of a work of art. Providence refers to divine guidance or care or the quality of being frugal or prudent.

'Provision' and 'Provide'

During the 14th and 15th centuries, words rooted in Latin vidēre, meaning "to see," began to emerge in English—for example, provision, an early 14th-century word that can mean "the act or process of supplying or providing something" or "a stock of needed material, supplies, or food," with the connotation that it is performed, supplied, or acquired by one "seeing" that something will be needed. The word, in its plural form, in reference to a stock of supplies or food, is a more ordinary use, as in "We brought enough provisions to last the entire trip."

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You can trust the provenance of this information.

Another 14th-century vidēre-based word is the verb purvey, meaning "to supply (something, such as provisions) as a matter of business"—to be transparent, its more direct ancestor is Anglo-French purveer, meaning "to look at, foresee, provide." The verb provide itself arrives later, in the 15th century, originally with the meaning "to take precautionary measures" or "to make provision for the future." The Founding Fathers testified to its use in the 1787 preamble to The U.S. Constitution:

We, as the people of the United States in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, to ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.

More commonly, provide is used to simply imply making or giving something that is wanted or needed—for example, the boss who wants to boost attendance at a meeting might text: "Coffee and doughnuts will be provided at the meeting."

'Province' and 'Providence'

The nouns province and providence are from Latin provincia and providentia, respectively, and they enter Middle English in the 14th century. Their base root (like provision, purvey, and provide) is providēre—a combination of the prefix pro-, meaning "before," "prior to," or "earlier than," and vidēre. (Informatively digressing: vidēre is also the source of improvise, which is a word for doing something without forethought, evident, supervise, video, and vision.)

Historically, province designated a country or region brought under the control of the ancient Roman government or a division of a country forming the jurisdiction of an archbishop or metropolitan. Today, it denotes any one of the large parts into which some countries, such as Canada, are divided, as well as a person's sphere of expertise. On the other hand, providence can refer to the exercise of foresight or frugality, or to divine guidance or care (in capitalized form); it can also signify God as the power guiding human destiny.

Alas, how shall this bloody deed be answer'd? / It will be laid to us, whose providence / Should have kept short, restrain'd and out of haunt / This mad young man.
— William Shakespeare, Hamlet, circa 1600

That to the height of this great argument / I may assert eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men.
— John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1667

Who finds not Providence all good and wise, / Alike in what it gives, and what denies?
— Alexander Pope, "Essay on Man," 1733-34

New Englanders might be wondering about Rhode Island's capital, Providence: it was founded in 1636 by the clergyman Roger Williams as a haven for religious dissenters and was supposedly so-named because providence had brought him there.

'Provenance' and 'Provenience'

Providence, although semantically dissimilar, has phonetic and orthographic similarities to provenance and provenience, which could lead to some hesitation on which to use. Provenance and provenience share the meaning of "origin" or "source" (especially in regard to place of manufacturing, production, or discovery), and both are modeled on the French verb provenir, meaning "to come forth, originate," which is ultimately a compound of Latin pro-, meaning "forth," and venire, "to come." Both are used synonymously, as in "the provenance/provenience of the minerals" or "the provenience/provenance of the coins." The words, however, enter the English language years apart— provenance in the 17th century, and provenience (which is an alteration of provenance) in the 19th century; about mid-1800s, provenance gains the specific sense of "the history of ownership of a valued object or work of art or literature."

With fewer than 40,000 miles on its odometer and in fine working condition, the Rolls-Royce—were it not previously owned and commissioned by Elizabeth Taylor—might sell for $600,000 or $700,000, according to Ettinger. Because of its Hollywood provenance, however, this rare and undisputable one-of-a-kind drophead coupe is estimated to command as much as $2 million when it rolls across the block.
— Shaun Tolson, MSN.com, 1 Aug. 2019

We will end here, but with one proviso (a word from the Medieval Latin phrase proviso quod, meaning "provided that"): if ever you are unsure about using province, providence, provenance, or provenience, look them up in our dictionary.



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