Word Court


Patrick Edsall, of Mountain View, California, writes, "I was told that the term crowbar was racist. My co-worker said it was derived from Jim Crow, and that the device was named as such because it was used for menial labor. He said the appropriate term is prybar. Any insight?"

I truly am glad there are well-meaning people who stand up against racism, but I wish they were all well informed, too. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in about 1400 the already existing word crow, for a bird, took on the additional meaning of an iron bar, "usually with one end slightly bent and sharpened to a beak." (Other sources say that the allusion may have been to either the bird's beak or its foot.) Shakespeare used the word crow in this sense—in The Comedy of Errors, as it happens: "Well, Ile breake in: go borrow me a crow." People started adding bar to the name of the tool in the eighteenth century.

So is racism implicit in the fact that the bird that gave the crowbar its name is black? No. But does the fact that the bird is black have something to do with the historically derogatory term Jim Crow? Yes. According to Stuart Berg Flexner's I Hear America Talking, "Blacks were first called crows" in the 1730s, and this helped inspire a minstrel named Thomas D. Rice, in 1828, to write the song "Jim Crow" (sample lyrics: "My name's Jim Crow, / Walk about, and turn about, / An' do jis so"). The song's title eventually became shorthand for an era of overt segregation.

By the way, pry bar (two words) is in only one of eight current dictionaries I checked for you, though the others say that pry alone can be used to mean "crowbar." But why not say crowbar?

Jack Miles, of Los Angeles, writes, "I wonder whether you share my regret that usage sanctions the lack of a hyphen between vice and the following noun in such expressions as vice chancellor, vice consul, and vice president. Should not the absence of a hyphen be understood to make those expressions mean 'chancellor in charge of vice,' 'consul in charge of vice,' and 'president in charge of vice'? In the American Heritage Dictionary, vice, meaning 'one who acts in the place of another, deputy,' is not freestanding. When the 'deputy' meaning is given, the word properly appears in the dictionary as vice-. Vice as a freestanding word means, of course, 'an evil, degrading, or immoral practice or habit.' One does, very occasionally, see vice-president, but in general vice president is standard. I sigh when I see it on letterheads and the like, but the cause is long lost, is it not?"

Well, yes and no. The fact that the American Heritage Dictionary has entries for vice- and vice just as you say suggests that there's life in the old hyphenated prefix yet. Then again, the AHD gives separate entries for vice chancellor, vice consul, and vice president, only the last of which includes a hyphenated version, as an equal variant. And then again, the AHD hyphenates all words derived from these titles: vice-chancellorship, vice-consular, vice-presidential, and so on.

Webster's New World is probably the nation's most influential dictionary, in that it's the official word source for the Associated Press and for The New York Times, among other newspapers. Except in reference to the Vice President of the United States (reflecting that the proper name of that office does not include a hyphen), WNW gives only the hyphenated version for each of the three titles we're looking into. But both the AP and the Times overrule the dictionary and consistently omit the hyphens.

All this adds up to those hyphens' being a matter of institutional or personal choice. Like you, if I became the vice-president of something, I'd lobby hard to be hyphenated. Why? Not because I want to differentiate myself from Dick Cheney—though I do—but to differentiate myself from the likes of the notorious Chicago gang the Vice Lords, and even from that city's vice squad, which doubtless often does battle with the gang, and vice versa.

Wells Gemberling, of York, Pennsylvania, writes, "More and more I am hearing on TV legal ads about garnishing a person's wages. Does this mean they are adding a sprig of parsley? Has garnishee been put out to pasture?"

Garnish may sound odd when used in the sense of "to take property, usually wages, by legal authority," because the word is a great deal more common in the culinary sense: "garnish with whipped topping" and "garnish with reserved whole radish," read recent newspaper citations. All the same, according to A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, by Bryan A. Garner, a lawyer who is also the editor of Black's Law Dictionary, "the usual verb form" in the legal sense is indeed garnish.

Do you have a language question or dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send e-mail to msgrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court. Ms. Grammar is also on the Web, at www.theatlantic.com/courtrecord.

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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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