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shameless pleading

Rank amateur

My game? Golf noir.

Dear Word Detective: My father was an amateur golfer with pretty good scores. I am a “rank” amateur at golf, meaning I often miss the ball completely. Does “rank” mean that I stink, either literally or figuratively?  Perhaps it refers to rankings — levels of expertise or professionalism? If the latter, why would a “rank amateur” have the connotation of a total lack of expertise? — Steve Ford.

Well, that’s a good question. I must admit that I don’t entirely understand the modern passion for golf, but I’m willing to admit that my un-golfy attitude may be due in part to the fact that I’ve only played the sort of golf that involves little windmills and tunnels. Late at night. With the hum of the highway in the background and the blinking neon sign of the motel casting purple shadows in the sweltering August heat that make you wonder why you’re driving to Vegas in some guy’s beat-up Chevy in the first place. But I’m guessing that your kind of golf isn’t that seedy, and that a guy named Marco didn’t repeatedly warn you not to look in the trunk of the car.

It does seem logical that a “rank amateur” golfer might be assigned a very low “rank” in the celestial pantheon of Golf Legends, but those two “ranks” are actually entirely different words. The noun “rank,” today most often used to mean “relative position” or “authority,” comes from the Old French “ranc,” which meant “row of soldiers” (in formation), “row or line of people or things,” or “row on a chessboard,” and is related to our modern English word “range.” The prehistoric Germanic ancestor of “rank” also gave us “ring.” When “rank” appeared in English in the 14th century, it was used in a variety of “line” or “row” senses. By the early 15th century, it had developed its modern comparative sense to mean “level of authority” or “status or social position” (“The nonsense and folly of people’s stepping out of their rank and trying to appear above themselves,” Jane Austen, 1814).

“Rank” as an adjective (and adverb) first appeared in Old English, based on Indo-European roots with the general sense of “upright,” meaning “proud, haughty or arrogant” as well as “full grown,” a sense which developed, largely in reference to vegetation, into “luxuriant” or “prolific.” This “overgrown” sense came to be used in primarily negative contexts, and soon “rank” as an adjective meant “coarse, swollen, excessive” and, by the 15th century, “offensive,” “evil,” “rotten or contaminated,” and even “having a strong and unpleasant smell.” Quite a downward trajectory for a word originally describing a lush garden, I’d say. That “foul smelling” sense, incidentally, is still widely used (“In the alley there was the rank odour of wet refuse,” 1940).

By the 16th century, “rank” had graduated to being used as a general-purpose negative intensifier meaning “complete and utter” (“The meanest Varlet, the dullest School-boy, the rankest Idiot,” 1676). By the late 19th century, the phrase “rank amateur” employed this sense to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “a person who is completely inexperienced or inept at a particular activity” (“A deceitful and filthy plan which makes Machiavelli look like a rank amateur,” Independent (UK), 1998).

So a “rank amateur” is a person with absolutely no, zero, nada, zippo experience or expertise in a particular task or activity. But the good news is that because of the change in meaning of this “rank” over the centuries, the “rank amateur” probably doesn’t smell all that bad.

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