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shameless pleading

Sound (solid, reliable)

Ding-a-ling! It’s the clue phone, Goldie!

Dear Word Detective: The writer of an op-ed piece in the New York Times on Sunday, November 14, 2010, mentioned in passing that “money was ‘sound’ if it rang when dropped on a counter.” This didn’t quite ring (sorry) true to me. I had always thought that ound in this sense meant “solid, trustworthy,” and the like. What do you say? — Harold Pinkley.

What do I say? Well, to quote the classic 1928 New Yorker cartoon (with caption by E.B. White), I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it. Furthermore, I am shocked, shocked, to discover that the Gray Lady apparently no longer employs fact-checkers who know how to run that new-fangled Google thing. Lastly, James Grant, the dude who penned that piece, evidently also retails a sheet called “Grant’s Interest Rate Observer,” the accuracy of which I’m sure his readers pray is a bit higher than that on display in this writing sample. Oh well, as we say around here, forget it, Jake, it’s the Times.

Mr. Grant’s op-ed is an extended paean to the gold standard and an argument for restoring it in order to conjure some magical rationality into national monetary policy. Pining for the halcyon days when Goldie was queen, he declares, “It was simplicity itself. National currencies were backed by gold. If you didn’t like the currency you could exchange it for shiny coins (money was ‘sound’ if it rang when dropped on a counter). Borders were open and money was footloose.” Perhaps. My own money seems plenty footloose already. Many a sleepless night here at Chez de le Chat has been danced lately to the pitter-patter of dollars scampering out of my wallet like mice on meth. But the problem of the moment is that Mr. Grant has confused two entirely different sorts of “sound.”

There are actually four completely separate kinds of “sound” in English. The oldest is “sound” meaning “channel of water” (as in Long Island Sound), which comes from the same Germanic root that gave us “swim.” The verb “sound” meaning “to measure the depth of water” probably comes from the Vulgar Latin verb “subundare,” combining “sub,” under, with “unda,” wave.

“Sound” in the sense of “noise; that which can be heard, etc.” comes from the Latin “sonus,” the same root that gave us “consonant,” “sonata,” “sonnet” and several other modern English words. “Sound” in the sense of “solid, reliable, undamaged” is actually a clipped form of the Old English “gesund,” drawn from Germanic roots (from which we also got the post-sneeze interjection “Gesundheit!”, meaning “Health!”).

So Mr. Grant has repeated a story he apparently heard somewhere that confuses “sound” meaning “reliable” with “sound” meaning “noise.” If this column had sound effects, you’d hear a loud buzzer at this point. But wait, is that the cavalry coming that I hear? By golly, it is, and Mr. Grant may not be entirely crazy after all. His subscribers will be so pleased.

It’s quite possible that what Mr. Grant was thinking of was not money being “sound” if it “rang” when dropped on a table, but the expression “ring of truth” (or, as you said in your question, “to ring true”), which did indeed come from the action of dropping a coin on a shop counter. Back in the 17th century, when counterfeit coins were as common as bogus derivatives are today, a sharp shopkeeper knew to drop a suspect coin on a hard surface as a test of its purity. True gold or silver would “ring,” while a coin adulterated with lead or the like would give a duller sound. The same “ring” test was applied (by light tapping with a finger, not dropping, of course) to gauge the purity of fine glass and pottery. Of course, the result of such tests is not always positive, and by 1850 we were using ” to have the ring of” to mean “having the characteristics of, being indicative of” in a less than laudatory sense (“The securities, supposedly based on rights to water reserves on Mars, struck some observers as having the ring of fraud”).

2 comments to Sound (solid, reliable)

  • Elizabeth Lightwood

    The Times is out of joint, perhaps?

  • Dan S.

    Today, the depth of water can be measured with sound, using sonar. I had assumed that “sounding” referred to a low-tech version of this – making some kind of noise in the water and listening carefully to the echoes, in order to get an indication of where the bottom was. I guess not.

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