If access and excess are alike, it is because of a family resemblance that they brought to English from Latin, their common language of origin. They also came to English at the same time, in the 14th century, a period when the French used by the ruling classes in England brought new words to the English vocabulary, and educated people of the time often also had a knowledge of Latin which influenced early usage of these words.
This combination of influences is evident in the oldest meaning of access in English, a meaning that is now much more common in French: “an attack or onset of illness or disease”. It was one of the meanings of the word taken from the Latin word accessus: “beginning (of fever or illness)”.
Our most common and general meanings of to accesshowever, descend from the other senses of access, meaning “to approach”. This gave the Latin name the meanings ‘approach’, ‘means of entry’ and ‘right of approach’. Our modern word retains all these meanings.
One can see the connection between the oldest use of the word, meaning “beginning” or, figuratively, “opening”, and a literal opening – something that gives access. In Shakespeare’s day, this was by far the most common use of the word, in phrases like “access denied” or “access free”.
The use relating to connectivity to networks or the Internet, “the freedom or the possibility of obtaining or using something”, dates from the end of the 1950s, as does the use of the corresponding verb (“to access Internet”), which was initially considered to be IT. jargon but has become so common since the 1990s that it is commonplace. Sometimes languages make big changes that are barely noticed.
Excess comes from the Latin name excess meaning “departure” or “projection”. To the neutral use of excess meaning “an amount more than necessary”, another was almost immediately added, giving the word a moral component, a connotation that “an amount more than necessary” is a bad thing .
Excess is most often encountered as a noun or adjective, but it also has a rare verbal usage, meaning “to eliminate the position of”, a usage reminiscent of the impersonal bureaucratic business jargon that people seem to love to hate.
The coincidence of the spelling and sound resemblance of the words excess and access sometimes leads to their confusion today. But if they seem to overlap in usage – which would be called a mistake by most editors and teachers – it turns out that, according to the Oxford English Dictionarythese words were confused from the start, and at the very least a slight overlap in meaning was present at the origin of the use of these words in English in the late 1300s.
If you hadn’t thought of it, you could simply say that this article provides access to an excess of information.
Follow Pierre SokolowskiMerriam-Webster editor, on Twitter @PeterSokolowski.