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shameless pleading






And the cats want Fancy Feast to be much fancier.

Dear Word Detective:  Way back in elementary school, there was one creature abhorred more than any other–the “D-er.” This despicable person would cut in front of another in one of the many lines we always seemed to find ourselves in. This was called “ditching,” shortened often to “d-ing.” I have asked the Internets, but they remain stubbornly quiescent on the matter, as did several dictionaries. Perhaps the word is limited to Central Ohio school systems? You’re my last hope, O Mighty Word Detective! — Not a D-er in Ohio.

At last, my genius is acknowledged! By the way, you can call me Obi Word. OK, here’s the plan: abolish all organized sports and outlaw TV, movies, and internet video. Force people to read again. Then make teaching the highest-paid profession and college education free and mandatory. Conduct driver’s license exams in Latin and set a national speed limit of 40 mph. Make all cell phones coin-operated and text-messaging a felony. Make bottled-water companies say what’s in the stuff, and allow claiming cats as dependents for tax purposes. Have I left anything out?

OK, back to the real world. “Ditch” is based on the Old English “dic,” which also gave us “dike.” From the beginning, “ditch” meant “a long and narrow excavation in the ground, especially one designed to carry water, as for drainage,” but early on “ditch” also meant the long mound of dirt excavated to make that trench, i.e., a “dike.” So for most of the 16th and 17th centuries, “ditch” and “dike” were vaguely synonymous.

“Ditch” became a verb in the 14th century meaning “to dig a ditch, especially to surround with a ditch as a means of fortification or marking boundaries” (“The several parcels of land … shall be inclosed, hedged, ditched, or fenced,” 1788). In the early 19th century, “to ditch” began being used to mean “throw into or as into a ditch” (Oxford English Dictionary). “Ditch” in a figurative sense meaning “to discard, jilt, abandon or defeat” followed soon after, and by the time of World War II, “to ditch” had become Royal Air Force slang for “to attempt an emergency landing in the sea.” This use was no doubt influenced by the earlier use of “ditch” as a noun to mean the sea in general and the English Channel in particular.

People have probably been standing in lines since the first mastodon roast, but only with the advent of the industrial revolution and urban congestion did we start inventing terms for the practice of not waiting your fair turn. “Queue jumping,” “cutting in line,” and “butting/barging/budging in line” are all fairly well-know terms for the practice. “Ditch the line,” however, is rarely heard outside the US Midwest, and has occasioned several discussions in recent years on the American Dialect Society email list (ADS-L).

It turns out, and I was quite surprised by this, that “to ditch the line” is used almost exclusively in Central Ohio, particularly in Columbus and surrounding areas of Franklin County (which is where my wife Kathy grew up and quite close to where we live now). Steven H. Keiser of the Department of Linguistics at Ohio State University in Columbus has been researching use of the phrase for several years, and has discovered several interesting angles to use of this “ditch,” including one that may help explain its origin.

The question, of course, is how “to ditch,” even in its slang sense of “jilt, abandon, discard,” could come to mean “butt into line.” It might be simply a greatly extended use of the “discard” sense to mean “blithely disregard the rights of other people in line,” but that seems a stretch. Some have suggested that a queue-jumper metaphorically “digs a ditch” in the middle of the line and steps in, but that seems even more elaborate and unlikely.

It has also been suggested that this “ditch” actually has no connection to the “trench” sort of ditch but is actually a modified form of the 18th century English slang term “to dish,” meaning “to ruin, defeat, circumvent” (from the sense of food being done and “dished,” i.e., put on plates). The same “dish” is found in the slang phrase “dish it out” and its modern relative, “dish the dirt” meaning “tell gossip.” Interestingly, and perhaps significantly, Steven Keiser at OSU spent some time asking people in and around Columbus about “ditch,” and discovered that people over the age of 40 (in 2001) tended to remember using the term “dish” to mean “cut in line,” while young children used, as you note, simply “D.” While not conclusive, the use of “dish” in this sense by the older generation may well indicate that “dish” is indeed the source of this sense of “ditch.”

8 comments to Ditch

  • Sam Edwards

    My dad is in his late 60s, and he contends that the term was “dishing”, and the word was used by analogy with moving dishes on a drying rack by hand, to rearrange them. He’s lived in Central Ohio his whole life.

  • David Clark

    I grew up in Columbus and one of its suburbs. I heard both “ditch” and “dish” and they seemed to be used interchangeably, but I heard “dish” more. It was used as a description of cutting into a line of people, or a queue, as in “no dishing.”

    I’m now 67 and live in Chicago. I use it to this day, but outside of Franklin County, no one knows what you’re talking about.

  • I just got into an argument with my teenage children after telling them about an incident where someone was ditching in line. They told me that “ditching in line” was incorrect grammar. To prove them wrong I Googled it and to my surprise found they were right. In my defense I am over 40 and from Columbus Ohio. I guess that makes me correct in my argument against them. I haven’t lived in Columbus since I was 20, but I will continue to use the terminology. I’d say that OSU researcher was right on the money. Thanks for the info!

  • I am 66 years old and from north central Ohio but I have lived in Columbus, Ohio most of my adult life. I read quite a lot and became interested in which phrase was correct “dish in line” or “ditch in line.” I have heard both used over the years and also found the phrases in my pleasure reading. I was delighted to read this column and discover how these phrases are connected exclusively to central Ohio. Thanks for the information!

  • Andrew Raymond

    Born in ’77, lived my whole life in Columbus. It was definitely “ditch” when I was growing up. My Dad was from Springfield and mother from Cleveland, but I don’t recall them using or trying to correct me in my usage.

  • Chris Karen

    Born close to Columbus, Ohio , but I have a dif reason why ditch is used for cutting in line , and it also explains why we use the ditch when we get rid of a person quickly and discretely that we do not like or want to associate with.
    It most likely comes from calling the separation or the splitting up or defining the lines of land a ditch.
    In the line reference the people/line is being separated.
    In the reference of ditching or getting rid of someone, we are separating ourselves from that person.OH and as an afterthought it also works for the airmen when landing in water; they are splitting the water, or making a ditch in the water. I could be wrong, but it makes sense to me. My guess as to exclusive use of the word as to cutting in line, instead of saying taking cuts is some family moved into the area from England and was popular, so kids copied him/her/them. Or some popular kid brought it back from a vacation and was using it. It can be traced by going through archives of the local newspapers. We are talking over fifty years ago, when places like Columbus and surrounding cities held things like getting new neighbors from abroad or going abroad for vacation was quite newsworthy.

  • Gerrade Hazelwood

    I was just curious about the word “ditch” in general. Reading this it came to me that “ditching” or disregarding the social norms of queing could also be some connection to phrase.
    Thank you for the great post.

  • Donald MacLeod

    I’m pushing 60 but well remember getting “dished” in line. Still not happy about it. Lol

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