Livelong is not a common adjective. Its use, for the most part, is restricted to one expression, all the livelong day, although as late as the nineteenth century the livelong night was also common. In these expressions the word is simply an intensified version of the adjective long. But why live-? We don’t use that word to intensify anything else.
Well, the word goes back to the first half of the fifteenth century. Livelong is first recorded in Henry Lovelich’s poem The History of the Holy Grail, found in the manuscript Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 80:
And thus vppon the yl stood Nasciens there Al the live long day In this Manere.
(And thus upon the hill stood the nations there all the livelong day in this manere.
Al that leve longe Nyht Into the Se he loked forth Ryht
(All that livelong night he looked directly into the sea.)
Lovelich probably penned the poem around 1410. The manuscript dates from before 1450. And the date provides us with a clue for why live- is used in the word.
The live- in livelong does not refer to living. Instead, it’s from the Old English leof, meaning dear, beloved. It shares a common Germanic root with the Old English lufu, or love.
There is a less common use of livelong to mean for a lifetime or lifelong. This sense appears in the late eighteenth century and would appear to be the result of a misanalysis of the word’s origin.
“livelong, adj.” Oxford English Dictionary Online, 3rd edition, September 2009.
“leve-long (adj.).” Middle English Dictionary, University of Michigan, 2001.
“love, n1.” Oxford English Dictionary Online, 3rd edition, March 2008.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton