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The word

Turns of phrase

Of patriots, bait, and other changing expressions

By Jan Freeman
June 14, 2009
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A few weeks ago, language blogger Brian White learned a new meaning of chauvinist when his mother, a proud Philadelphian, used the word to describe herself and her hometown loyalism.

"I've only ever heard chauvinist used in the context of male chauvinism," wrote White at his blog, Talk Wordy to Me. "But this is another case of a word with a broader meaning that has fallen out of use enough that I'd never heard it in my 26 years."

After a moment's reflection, I wasn't surprised that a twentysomething citizen had never encountered the older definition of chauvinist. Though it once meant "fanatical patriot," as exemplified by French soldier Nicolas Chauvin, we no longer make much use of the concept; the very idea that patriotism could be absurd or excessive has become almost un-American.

And with the old chauvinist out of the picture, the newer male chauvinist is free to take chauvinist as its everyday nickname. (There once were protests against this abbreviation, but in vain; the primary meaning of unadorned chauvinist, for most people, is now "sexist," not "flag-waving nutter.")

People who object to such language changes sometimes say, "Just because everyone does it, that doesn't make it right." But what's true about speeding or tax fiddling does not apply to language change; if everyone does it, that does, eventually, make it right. Often, we don't even notice that a meaning is changing; older speakers use a word one way, younger ones a different way, but not so different that it sets off alarms.

Cut bait, as an expression in itself, is another good example. My daughter used it the other day - without any reference to fish - to mean "end a relationship, cut out." That sounded odd to me, but it isn't new; cut bait had been cut loose from fishing contexts by the 1960s, and maybe sooner.

In the century before that, it was "fish or cut bait," or sometimes a longer expression, as in an 1865 magazine story: "As the mackerel fisherman said to his passengers, they must do one of three things: Fish, cut bait, or go ashore." It's sort of a maritime version of "Lead, follow, or get out of the way."

But when the phrase was shortened to "fish or cut bait," it was still used as if it meant "Make a decision, are you in or out?" - even though both fish and cut bait, in the literal sense of the saying, counted as pitching in. And if fish, in the shorter expression, stood for "say yes, do the work," that left cut bait to mean "drop out, decide not to do it."

Other uses of the verb cut could have reinforced this sense, notably cut and run, itself a sailing term meaning "cut the anchor cable and get out fast," which the Oxford English Dictionary dates to 1794. There are also cut away (1590) and cut out (1797), meaning "leave quickly," and plain cut, meaning "renounce" or "skip" (1791).

But cut bait to mean "quit, abandon" doesn't make any obvious sense. Some etymologies claim that it means "cut the (live) bait free and quit fishing," but I'm dubious; I haven't yet found textual evidence for it, and my fishing friend, Dave Cohen, says it's not used in his Gloucester haunts. Not that most people need an answer; cut bait means "call the whole thing off," and nobody worries much, it seems, about what exactly the bait is doing there.

Scan is another word that changed its meaning on the sly. As Jesse Sheidlower noted in a 1997 post at "Mavens' Word of the Day," "the sense 'to examine closely' is found by the mid sixteenth century, and was for a long time the main sense." By the 1920s, he said, scan had come to mean "read hastily; glance at," and nowadays we're surprised to hear it used to mean the opposite.

But what's most interesting about this, Sheidlower says, is that hardly anybody opposed the evolution of scan. The usage authorities were too busy condemning the spread of peruse as a synonym for "read" - a sense it had had since the 16th century - to fuss about scan. "The Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage," which blasted the 'loose' use of peruse, merely cautions against the confusion of the contradictory senses of scan." And the American Heritage usage panel disapproved of the casual peruse but embraced the casual scan.

Who knows why we let some changes slide by and grimly resist others of no greater significance? Peruse sounds more formal, and scan resembles skim; that alone might tempt us to assign the longer word to serious reading and let the short, snappy one lounge on the floor with a comic book.

At the moment, though, both words can be ambiguous, and until a consensus jells, I'm going to leave them alone. It's always best to be cautious with words in transition - and besides, study, read, and skim will cover anything I might want to do to a text.

E-mail Jan Freeman at mailtheword@gmail.com. For past columns, go to boston.com/ideas.