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shameless pleading

Reckon

Needless to say, I never made Pardner.

Dear Word Detective: Howdy. I was just reading an article on cornbread, apparently written by a British person. She wrote, “in the US, almost everyone reckons they know what makes good cornbread.” I never “reckon,” but my sister, who has lived in Georgia for 15 years, “reckons” constantly. What is the deal with this word? — Valorie in WA.

Howdy? Thereby hangs a tale. Many years ago, when I worked as a lowly scrivener at a large, evil New York City law firm, I would often run into coworkers coming down the hall, who would usually greet me, quite reasonably, with “Hi.” I would, however, almost invariably blurt out “Howdy” in reply. I have no idea where that “Howdy” came from, and though I tried to break myself of the habit, I kept saying it. I grew up in Connecticut, not a “Howdy”-rich environment, and outside the office I usually went with “Hiya.” Weird. Not that there’s anything wrong with “Howdy,” of course; it’s just a compressed dialectical form of the very polite greeting “How do you do?”

“Reckon” is another word that probably would have sounded odd in a Manhattan law firm. In its modern sense of “to calculate or guess” (“I reckon it’s about two miles away”) or “to suppose or believe something” (“I reckon he’s just not the marrying kind”), “reckon” is a vague but very useful word. Nobody ever got popped for perjury using “reckon.” It’s got a built-in “maybe.”

When “reckon” first appeared in English around 1200 (as “recenen”), it meant “to calculate, estimate, explain,” and came from the same Germanic base word that gave us “right.” Early senses included enumerating things, counting money, compiling lists and settling accounts (including a “divine reckoning” after death, when one would be called upon to explain one’s failure to recycle).

From the sense of a persnickety bean-counting, “reckon” developed a more laid-back subjective sense of “to regard” a person or thing as possessing certain qualities, importance, etc. (“Fortius would have been reckon’d a Wit, if there had never been a Fool in the World.” 1712). “Reckon” also developed the sense of “estimate, judge or predict” (“They reckon that this …Work will be finish’d in about fifty Years.” 1745). Other senses included “to plan,” “to intend,” and “to expect.”

Many senses of “reckon” are now considered colloquial and are thus unlikely to be encountered in standard or “business English,” which is odd, because some of the most refined literature in the 17th through 19th centuries used them with no hint of informality (“I shall have a good deal of trouble, I reckon, .. to be decent on the expected occasion.” Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, 1748). But “reckon” eventually came to be regarded as typical of southern and rural dialects in the US (and of regional dialects in the UK), and became stereotyped as a “hayseed” usage.

2 comments to Reckon

  • magill

    I live in the southern US and hear reckon occasionally but have heard it probably more often in British programs, and not regional dialects either, so it may be more common in the UK than you may think (for example: location, location, location and relocation, relocation were where I really started noticing it).

  • Margaret

    I just stumbled across your page and am laughing about this particular column. I have read a lot of amateur fiction and nothing throws me out of a story faster than an American character (not a hayseed!) saying “reckon.” It almost always means the author is British and had no idea that using “reckon” makes me think the character ought to be wearing a 10-gallon hat and chewing on a piece of straw. There are other Britishisms that slip through, of course, but this is perhaps the most egregious.

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