We need a national Cone of Silence.
Dear Word Detective: I hope it’s not too heavy a subject for you to weigh in on, but I’d like to know why someone “weighs in” on an issue. I’ve read of the term relating to boxers getting weighed immediately prior to a fight, to confirm their eligibility to fight in a particular weight class. I find that unconvincing, since the fighters are weighing in prior to the competition, but when pundits “weigh in,” they’re already participating in the battle of opinion. — Paul Mailman.
Ah yes, pundits and the battle of opinion in the marketplace of ideas. Pardon me for sounding cynical. I used to love to argue, or to listen to an argument, on almost any topic. Best band, best president, best brand of mustache wax, it didn’t matter. But no more. I think I lost my will to wrangle about the time that “pundits” began talking (or shouting) over each other on cable TV news shows and the obnoxious habit spread into the general population. A lot of people apparently miss the fistfights at recess in fourth grade, but I’ll pass, thanks.
It’s true that “to weigh in” is frequently used today to mean “to join a discussion or debate already in progress and express one’s opinion.” Back when I watched the TV shoutfests, the host would often ask a reticent member of the assembled punditude if he or she wished to “weigh in on the subject.” (I’m sure it was supposed to seem courteous, but I always got the sense that it really meant “Hey, we’re paying you to scream at these people. Get to work.”)
Incidentally, inasmuch as “pundit” comes from the Hindi word “payndit,” meaning “learned man, teacher,” isn’t it way past time to be looking for a new term for those people on TV?
The basic sense of “weigh” when it first appeared in English was “to lift, hold up or carry” (a meaning still found in “weigh anchor”), and the sense of “to measure the heaviness of” and its derivatives were later developments. The ancient source of “weigh” was the Indo-European root “wegh” (to carry or move), which also produced the Latin “vehere” meaning the same thing, which eventually gave us such useful English words as “vehicle” and “vector.”
“Weigh in” in the sense of “be weighed in preparation for entering an athletic contest” first appeared in print in the early 19th century. The first citation (1805) in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) refers not to boxing, but to weighing jockeys before horse races. The earliest citations for the boxing sense come from the early 20th century. By the late 1880s, “weigh in” was being used to mean “to produce something noteworthy” (“The journal ‘weighs in’ with a prismatic Christmas number,” 1885), and by 1909 “weigh in” was being used to mean, as the OED puts it, “to bring one’s weight or influence to bear; to enter a forceful contribution to a discussion, etc.” (“I want you to ask the Chief Rabbi to weigh in,” G.B. Shaw).
It seems clear that in this use of “weigh in” the contest, so to speak, is already underway. But I think this use of “weigh in” reflects a combination of the “prepare to enter a discussion” sense and the “bring one’s weight to bear” sense of the term. To ask someone to “weigh in” on a topic is to acknowledge that the person has some “weight,” i.e., expertise in, or influence on, the subject. After all, it makes no sense to ask a “lightweight” to “weigh in” on important matters of state or public policy (unless, of course, you’re running a TV talk show, in which case Ashton Kutcher will do just fine).