First Come, First Served

By Maeve Maddox

The expression first come, first served began life as a proverb having the same sense as the early bird catches the worm.

Both proverbs are admonitions against dawdling.


The proverb was adopted by shopkeepers to convey the idea that customers would be served in the order of their arrival. In case of limited quantities, latecomers would be out of luck. And if the local squire got there after the char lady, he’d have to wait his turn.

The expression has become so common in modern times that the abbreviation FCFS and even Fcfs is seen in advertising and on ticket-selling sites.

Because the expression originated before the 1900s when the idiom changed, modern speakers and writers have trouble with the usage.

A common error is to write the phrase as “first come, first serve.” The confusion arises from thinking that “come” is the same kind of verb form as “serve” and that they’re supposed to match.

One way to look at it is to think of first come, first served as an elliptical form of the first to come will be the first to be served.

Another is to recognize come as a past participle or adjectival verb form. Consider:

First seen, first treated.
First gone, first missed.

In first come, first served, “come” functions as an adjective. It’s not a common usage these days, but I actually found a contemporary example in a song written by Steeleye Span, a British electric folk band. It’s from their 2004 album They Called Her Babylon:

some said, “give him the beef, the beef,”
some said, “give him the bone.”
and some said, “give him nothing at all
but let the beggar roam.”
then up and spake the new-come lord,
a saucy word spoke he,
“pass round the cup, let my rival sup,
then send him on his way.”

Confusion about the expression involves punctuation as well as spelling.

No comma
Bookings must be made by midnight 22nd June, so hurry, spaces are limited and available on a first come first served basis.

Comma
Free flights from British Airways for small businesses looking to export. There are 4,000 up for grabs on a first come, first served basis.

Hyphens
Delta Airlines accepts pets on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Quotation marks
NEWCASTLE United is set to be sold on a “first-come, first-served” basis.

I vote for the unhyphenated, unquoted comma version:
The new phones will be sold on a first come, first served basis.

Of course the problems of verb form and punctuation can be avoided entirely by going with FCFS.

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10 Responses to “First Come, First Served”

  • Cine Cynic

    There is possibly another reason for the proliferation of “First come, first serve”. FCFS, also called FIFO (First in, first out) is a basic algorithm in computer science. There, the name serves as a direction for the serving technique: to serve in the order of their entry.

  • Brad K.

    . . . pretty please don’t use the acronym. I just had to look up QFT. Someone agreed with something I said (shocking!) and that was the first time I saw “quoted for truth”. I am sure that saves typing for twitter, but confused me.

    Thanks for discussing the comma, and the wrong verb tense (serve).

  • Deborah H

    I have never seen the abbreviation FCFS used in print before. I guess in America, the practice of first come, first served is so common that we don’t even think about it.

    When the retail chain “Pier One” first opened in the early ’70s, they posted signs in the store that said, “For help, wave a $20 bill over your head.” We knew that was a joke of course. Today, I wave a $100 bill.

  • scriveyn

    In German “first come, first served” is also common:
    “Wer zuerst kommt, mahlt zuerst”
    [He] who comes first [to the mill], will be the first to grind their corn.

    BTW: I have never heard of the acronym FCFS either.

  • Jon

    Since I came to Australia I’ve found the phrase “First in, best dressed” seems to be used just as often.

    Maybe it’s just a Queensland thing.

    (I’ve never seen FCFS as a substitute for FIFO either.)

  • April

    Regarding the term First Come, First Served versus First Come, First Serve; I see it as a reference to service. For instance: A person wants to buy a product that is in limited supply, it would be First Come, First Served. However, if say my sister were to make a bunch of cookies and put them out on the table for anyone to eat and serve themselves, it would be First Come, First Serve.

    Does that make any sense?

  • Maeve

    April,
    No. 🙂

  • Jon

    Contemporary usage from Steeleye-Span?…

    “then up and spake the new-come lord”

    Spake?!

    Not sure that this is the best example of contemporary usage… 😉

  • Steve

    April…yes, that makes sense. Btw, my whole long life in the USA I’ve heard and used ONLY “first come, first serve.” Usage rules.

  • Tim

    It’s never correct to use “first come, first serve”, just the way it’s never correct to write “more then”. Just because you don’t understand correctly what you are hearing doesn’t excuse your incorrect spelling.

    Those who come first get served first. You can’t get “serve” first.

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