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This just in.

Dear Word Detective: If it’s possible to “pre-empt” something, is it possible to just “empt” it? — Jo.

Yeah, sure, there’s an app for that. There must be, right? I discovered the other day that a disturbing number of you people out there read this column on your telephones, which strikes me as fairly weird, and makes me wonder if I should be writing shorter sentences with shorter words. Like this one. In case your bus comes. Or something. I actually did set up a “mobile” version of my website a few months back, but it made my deathless prose look like a ransom note, so I pulled the plug.

“Pre-empt” is one of a class of strange little words (“co-opt” is another) that make many people uncomfortable and drive spell-checkers nuts. It’s the hyphen that does it, but there’s really no way around it unless both words become as commonly used as “cooperate,” which you still frequently see spelled as “co-operate” outside the US. “Pre-empt” is increasingly spelled “preempt” here in the US, but that form still makes me look twice, which is not what you want in a word.

“Empt” actually is a verb in English, but (Star Wars reference ahead) it’s not the verb you’re looking for; it’s related to “empty,” it means “to be or make empty,” and it’s considered obsolete to boot. To “pre-empt,” on the other hand, means “to preclude, to forestall, to prevent an anticipated occurrence or to take action before another person is able to.” We usually hear “pre-empt” in the TV sense of “replacing a scheduled program or event with another deemed more important,” but it’s also commonly used in the “act before someone else has a chance” sense (“It is hoped the move could pre-empt an announcement by the Government that it has found a way to alter planning laws,” 2005).

“Pre-empt” first appeared in print in the mid-19th century, and the verb was actually a “back-formation” from the noun “pre-emption,” which dates back to about 1600. (“Back-formation” occurs when a simpler word, often a verb, is created from an older, more complex form. The verb “to sculpt,” for instance, was formed long after “sculptor” appeared.)

Pre-emption,” of course, is also commonly used today meaning simply “the act of pre-empting” in all its various senses.

But the original meaning of “pre-emption” gives a hint as to its source. When “pre-emption” first appeared, it was in the specific sense of “The purchase by one person or party before an opportunity is offered to others; the right of making such a purchase in certain circumstances” (Oxford English Dictionary). The word was formed from the prefix “pre” (before) plus “emption,” a legal term meaning “to buy.” The root of “emption” was the Latin verb “emere,” to buy; the agent-noun of that verb is “emptor,” famous from the Latin phrase “Caveat emptor,” or “Let the buyer beware.”

There have been several legal doctrines based on various “rights of pre-emption,” usually entitling either the state to seize property or a private party to purchase public property with a promise to improve it. When a new law overrides an existing one, that process is also called “pre-emption.” There’s also the military tactic of “pre-emption,” making a surprise “pre-emptive” attack on a putative enemy deemed sufficiently threatening. And, if the conflict is sufficiently momentous, such a “pre-emptive” attack will probably result, at least on the “pre-empting” end, in “pre-emption” of America’s Top Model by men in ornate uniforms standing in front of maps, at which point it might be a good idea to meditate a bit on “caveat emptor.”

Out for a duck

No runs, no hits, big trauma.

Dear Word Detective: I’m searching for the meaning of the expression “out for a duck,” as used in “The first time Milne went to see his son play in a school cricket match, he was out for a duck, not scoring a single run.” — Ehrenberg H. Peter.

Ah yes, as the great existential philosopher Chico Marx once put it, “Why a duck? Why not a chicken?” Of course, in the film (Cocoanuts, 1929), Chico has misunderstood Groucho saying “viaduct,” and the dialogue then descends into Chico wondering why Groucho needs a Ford to cross the river when he has a horse, but “Why a duck?” is about all we have time for at the moment. The relevant clip, like every other worthy bit of human history, can be found on YouTube. While you’re there, check out some clips from the Marx Brothers’ subsequent film “Duck Soup.” The boys seem to have had a thing for ducks.

But who among us, as John Kerry so famously is said to have said, does not enjoy ducks? The English language certainly does. The humble but endearing waterfowl we know as the “duck” has contributed dozens of colorful phrases to our speech. When we put our affairs in order, we say we have “all our ducks in a row” (as a mother duck leads her brood of ducklings), we shed adversity “like water off a duck’s back,” we learn a new job (we hope) “like a duck takes to water” (easily), we greet a gloomy sky as “a good day for a duck” but regard sunshine as “ducky” (from the use of “little duck” and similar terms as endearments), and if something is very easy, we declare it “duck soup” (the origin of which is, sadly, a complete mystery).

Our modern English word “duck” comes from the Old English “ducan,” which did not, interestingly, mean any sort of bird. “Ducan” was a verb meaning “to plunge underwater suddenly, to dive or dip.” The name “duck” for the fowl came from its habit of feeding by “ducking,” plunging its head into the water. So when you have to “duck” your head when climbing into a compact car, don’t blame the ducks for bad design.

The phrase you cite as an example of “out for a duck” actually comes from an account of the strained relationship between A.A. Milne, author of “Winnie the Pooh” and other works, and his son Christopher Robin Milne, who starred in many of his father’s stories. The fact that the younger Milne failed to score in that cricket match was evidently a source of great disappointment to both him and his father.

“Duck” as slang for scoring no hits (or meaning a player who scores no hits) originated in cricket in the mid-19th century, but is now used in other sports as well. “Duck” in this sense is short for “duck’s egg,” meaning the zero placed beside the player’s name in scoring sheets. It first appeared in schoolboy slang in Britain, where it is also used to mean “nothing” in a general sense. To finally score after a time at “duck” in cricket is to “break one’s duck,” but if that doesn’t happen and the game concludes with a player not having scored even once, that hapless soul is said to be “out for a duck.” In the US, we more simply refer to zero as a “goose egg.”

On the scout

Or perhaps he meant “scoot.”

Dear Word Detective: In “True Grit” by Charles Portis, a horse trader describes the murderer Tom Clancy as being “on the scout” in the Indian Territory. I’ve never seen “scout” used in such a way. It certainly seems from the context that “scout” here means “hiding out” or “on the lam,” and not “exploring” as is the more common meaning of the word today. Perhaps you can shed some light on this use of the word? — Bill Lundeberg.

That’s an interesting question, and that use of “scout” strikes me as a bit odd, too. I must admit that my knowledge of “scouts” and what they do is drawn almost entirely from the TV “horse operas” of my youth (e.g., Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, and similar pacifist fare). There was also the occasional historical painting depicting some famous scout standing on an outcropping of rock pointing to another, apparently identical, outcropping of rock in the distance. Even at the age of ten, doing that for a living seemed boring to me. And that buckskin clothing looked scratchy.

There are actually, and somewhat surprisingly, several distinct “scout” nouns in English, plus two verbs. The oldest noun, dating back to around 1400, is an obsolete “scout” meaning “overhanging rock,” from the Old Norse “skute,” which is related to the verb “to shoot.” I just report this stuff, folks. Next up are “scouts” meaning “a flat-bottomed boat,” “a kind of sea bird,” and “scout” as a term of contempt, which seems to have been imported from Scandinavia as a verb meaning “to mock” and is also related to the verb “to shoot” (and possibly “to shout”). College servants at Harvard, Yale and Oxford have also been known as “scouts” since the 18th century.

None of those, with the possible exception of “scout” meaning “servant,” however, seem to be connected to “scout” in the “explorer” sense. That “scout” comes from the Old French “escouter,” meaning “to listen,” which itself came ultimately from the Latin “auscultare,” also meaning “to listen.” That “listening” meaning of “scout” is the key to the word.

To “scout” when the verb first appeared in English around 1400 was not to map out the best routes for travel and rate restaurants along the way, but to perform what we today would probably call “espionage.” A “scout” was a spy who prowled around in search of information, specifically a soldier sent in advance of the main force of an army in order to locate the enemy and report back to his superiors (“Others from the dawning Hills Lookd round, and Scouts each Coast light-armed scoure, Each quarter, to descrie the distant foe,” Milton, Paradise Lost, 1667).

This military sense of “scout” soon broadened to mean “a person sent out to gather information” in a general sense, largely devoid of those “sneaky spy” overtones, and in many uses (as in the once-popular wagon train dramas), a “scout” was simply a knowledgeable rider who investigated the trail ahead to insure the travelers’ safety. Eventually we developed such wholesome uses of “scout” as in “Boy Scouts” and “Girl Scouts,” which led, in the early 20th century, to the slang use of “good scout” to mean an honest, reliable person. The same period saw the rise of the slightly-less-wholesome “talent scouts” and “sports scouts” prowling obscure bars and small-town football fields looking for the Next Big Thing (“Vaudeville scouts approached us. Our pictures were in the papers,” Paul Whiteman, 1926).

The phrase “on the scout” (or “in the scout”) dates back to the 17th century, and means to be acting as a “scout” in the original sense of a spy or surreptitious observer (“Capt. Baker … without my leave, went upon a scout and … was shot,” 1775). In the sense that you mention, I’d say that the author meant that the criminal was traveling “as a scout would,” i.e., secretly, trying to avoid detection, definitely on the lam in a sneaky fashion, looking for nothing except a way to avoid being caught.