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shameless pleading

Vesting

And a picture of a gold watch.

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me where the word “vesting” comes from? I know it is a derivative of “vest,” but I’d like a clear explanation of its history. — Elizabeth Hunt.

Hey, I’ve got an idea. Let’s trade — I’ll explain the history of the word “vest,” and you can explain (I hope) how “vesting” (as in a pension plan) works. I worked in an office for nearly twenty years, and around year five they told me I was “fully vested,” pension-wise. I figured I was fixed for life, but lately they’ve been sending me statements indicating that my pension at age 65 will consist of a monthly box of Cheez-Its and a subscription to Popular Caulking. I’m certain it used to be more than that. Am I losing money by continuing to breathe? Are the market moths eating holes in my vest?

Onward. “Vest” is, of course, both a noun and a verb, and the two forms have diverged quite a bit over the centuries. “Vest” the noun first appeared in English in the 17th century, derived from the Latin “vestis,” meaning “clothing or garment.” The earliest vests in England were sleeveless garments worn by men under their coats, a fashion introduced by Charles II in 1666 on an occasion chronicled by Samuel Pepys in his famous Diary (“This day the King begins to put on his vest; …being a long cassocke close to the body, of black cloth, and pinked with white silk under it, and a coat over it, and the legs ruffled with black riband like a pigeon’s leg.”) Shorter vests eventually came to be called “waistcoats” in Britain, but “vest” persisted in America.

“Vest” the verb is more a parallel development than an actual derivative of the waistcoat sort of “vest.” The root here is the Latin verb “vestire,” meaning “to clothe,” with the specific sense of dressing someone in the robes or vestments (another derivative) of office or power. When “vest” the verb appeared in English around 1425 (about 200 years before the noun “vest”), it already carried the metaphorical meaning of “to place or secure something in the legal possession of a person,” a sense it retains to the present day. Thus, when you are “vested” in your pension, it’s 100 percent yours, for what that’s worth. “Vest” is also still used in specific instances to mean “to grant authority to,” found in such portentous phrases as “By the power vested in me….”

The verb “to vest” has two close cousins, “invest” and “divest,” both of which originally involved putting on or taking off clothes. Our modern “loan money to a business or enterprise” meaning of “invest” is an outgrowth of the “give power to” sense of “vest,” but it this case it is money that is being given (and taken away in “divest”). “Vest” the verb is also related to “travesty” (from the Italian “transvestire,” meaning “to change clothes as a disguise” the source of “transvestite” as well), meaning “a grotesque or mocking imitation” or “a parody” (which is a pretty good description of my so-called pension).

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