Remembrance of things very odd.
Note: As will quickly become apparent, this column was written and sent to newspapers and subscribers last September. Furthermore, as I discovered when I emerged from my burrow in early February, the election is long over. I am duty bound to point out that you can avoid this sort of disconcerting delay in your breaking etymological news delivery by becoming a subscriber.
Dear Word Detective: The newspapers are abuzz with Republican John McCain’s team of people who “vetted” or were “vetting” or were given the assignment to “vet” Sarah Palin, his prospective VP running mate. What is the origin of the term “vet”? When was it first used? — Tony McHugh.
Wait, don’t tell me. You folks are having another presidential election, aren’t you? I wouldn’t know, of course, because after the last one I lined my office in cork and nailed the door shut. Now I spend my days sprawled on my chaise longue, reading my way through Evelyn Waugh for the umpteenth time and subsisting on Oreos dipped in gin. Give my regards to Wolfie and the gang, and drop me a line when it’s over. By the way, is that Palin person related to Michael Palin from Monty Python, the shopkeeper in the Dead Parrot sketch? I wonder if that’s relevant. Does Alaska have fjords?
I actually answered a question about “vet” during an election several years ago, but since our memories were all apparently wiped clean soon thereafter, we’ll give it another go.
There are several remarkable things about “vet” as it is being used in the media these days. The first is its sheer ubiquity. If one were to concoct a drinking game that consisted of watching cable TV news and taking a shot after every use of the word “vet,” one would likely be on the floor before the first commercial break. Furthermore, the talking heads are apparently so deeply smitten by “vet” that they’re not even trying to come up with synonyms to break the “vet vet vet” monotony. Hey, guys? Try “investigate” or “check into her record.” I know, too many syllables.
The second notable fact about “vet” is that if you were watching US election coverage back in the 1990s, you probably never heard the word. Although “vet” in the current sense of “examine the background and history of a candidate for public office” has been used in Britain since the early years of the 20th century, it’s a relatively recent arrival here in the US.
Thirdly, the original figurative use of “vet” was simply “to examine thoroughly,” but in current political use it seems to be carrying the added sense of “approval.” Strictly speaking, however, a candidate can be “thoroughly vetted,” found grievously wanting, and banished to the fjords, or the Aleutians, whatever.
But my favorite remarkable aspect of the current “vet” craze is the probability that ninety percent of the talking heads who pompously pronounce it every two seconds have no idea where the term came from. Ready? It’s just a shortening of “veterinarian,” a doctor who cares for animals (from the Latin “veterinae,” cattle, which constituted the bulk of early veterinarians’ patients). The original meaning of “vet” used as a verb was “to examine an animal (e.g., a racehorse before a race) thoroughly” (“Beau is shaky in his forelegs. I shall have him vetted before the races,” 1891). The “check out the candidate’s past” sense first appeared in print in 1904. Given the superficial “horse race” coverage of politics in much of our media, “vet” is the perfect word.