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Why has behalf so rapidly collapsed into misuse? Everyone says things like ‘On my behalf I don’t want money’, or ‘The car crashed through bad driving on your behalf’. Rather than attributing the action to a vicarious agent, they simply mean ‘for my part’ or ‘on your part’. I should like to see what the Oxford English Dictionary has found out about this usage, but it has not updated its entry for behalf since 1887.

Even then, it was bemoaning the ‘loss of an important distinction’ between in behalf of and on behalf of. Someone complained to The Spectator 202 years ago about a line in a play that ‘ought, by no means, to be presented to a chaste and regular audience’. A lover in the play spoke of his beloved Harriet, and longed ‘to fold these arms about the waist of that beauteous struggling, and at last yielding fair.’ In the issue of 28 April 1711, Richard Steele wrote in response, that ‘there is a great deal to be said in behalf of an author’ such as the playwright. (As a matter of fact, the play complained of, The Funeral, or Grief à la Mode, was by Steele himself. It was his first work for the stage, being produced with some success in December 1701. ‘Nothing can make the Town so fond of a man as a successful play’ he remarked later. Perhaps, in 1711, being short of matter for the next issue, he invented the outraged moral complainant. Yet in later editions the line was cut.) In any case, by in behalf of Steele meant in defence of. To speak on behalf of an author would be to speak instead of him.

When the OED rued the ‘recent’ loss of the distinction between on behalf of instead of in behalf of, it quoted an example from William Cowper on 1793, which wasn’t tremendously recent even in 1887. Yet the modern confusion between on behalf of and on the part of, between my behalf and my part, is nothing more than a reversion to a much earlier usage that had become obsolete. Chaucer used the phrase on your behalf in the sense on your part in The Canterbury Tales. But Chaucer said lots of things that we shouldn’t.