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shameless pleading

Burglar

“Irrelevant, incompetent and immaterial” forever!

Dear Word Detective: In a 1961 episode, Perry Mason used “burglar” as a verb, specifically “the other houses that had been burglared.” Is this just a case of bad script editing, or was this at some time a legitimate use? — Charles Anderson.

Perry Mason! Paul Drake! Della Street! Lieutenant Tragg! District Attorney Hamilton Burger (a.k.a “Hamburger”)! Bestest lawyer show ever! We weren’t allowed to talk in our house — not a word — when it was on. They show “Perry Mason” reruns on one of the digital sub-channels we get, but it’s on at 4 am or something, right after “Sea Hunt,” so it’s slightly past my bedtime.

Speaking of burglary, living in the middle of nowhere is apparently no guarantee of immunity. We returned home about a month ago to discover that someone had kicked in our back door and stolen what little we had that was worth stealing. They carefully closed the door on the way out, which was weird, but it prevented the cats from wandering off.

“Burglar” is an interesting word. It first appeared in the 16th century, from the Anglo-French “burgesour,” which was derived from a tangle of Old French and Medieval Latin words. Ultimately the trail seems to lead back to the Latin “burgus,” meaning “fortress or castle,” which had, in Medieval Latin, produced the word “burgare,” meaning “to commit burglary.”

The original meaning of “burglar” in English was the same as its modern sense: “One who commits the crime of burglary.” The noun “burglary” also hasn’t changed much, meaning “the crime of breaking into a house with intent to commit a crime.” The original English and US laws apparently specified that the entry had to be made at night (“housebreaking” was the daytime crime), and that physical damage to the dwelling had to occur, but now illegal entry at any time by any means with criminal intent counts in most places as “burglary.”

The reason Perry’s use of “burglared” sounds odd to our ears is that today the most common verb form meaning “to commit an act of burglary” is “burgle” (“The bakery was burgled at 1:30pm today by the same man who burgled the shop on December 3,” Manawatu (New Zealand) Standard, 12/12/12). The verb “burgle” is more popular in the UK than in the US, where we prefer “burglarize,” a verb formed from the noun “burglar.” But “burglar” is also a perfectly good verb meaning “to commit burglary” (“A news agency … was burglared yesterday morning,” 1890). All three of these verbs, “burgle,” “burglarize” and “burglar,” appeared in the late 19th century. Interestingly, “burgle” was originally regarded as a colloquial or humorous invention, though, as we’ve seen, it seems to have become standard usage, at least in the UK.

So why, given the choice of three verb forms all meaning “to commit burglary on,” did the writers for Perry Mason choose “burglared”? My guess is that “burgled” at that point still struck many people in the US as a jocular usage and thus inappropriate for courtroom use, and that “burglarize” likewise seemed a bit trendy or flashy. “Burglared” was probably the choice of whatever legal consultants the show was using, and almost certainly didn’t sound as strange back in 1961 as it does today.

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