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June 16th, 2004

Live / founder vs. flounder / to vet

by Barbara Wallraff

Bernard Burdsall, of Kingston, Ontario, writes: “I chuckle when I read in the TV guide of the local PBS station ‘9:30 p.m. Live from Dublin -- Andre Rieu.’ It must be after midnight in Ireland. How can it be ‘live,’ especially when the program is repeated at another time? Why does anyone write such nonsense?”

Dear Bernard: I hate to be a spoilsport, but “live” in reference to a prerecorded concert really isn’t stupid. I’ll grant you the word can mean that the artist will be physically present -- as in “live piano music nightly.” But it can also mean that an audience was physically present -- as in “a live audience,” instead of the audience that includes you relaxing at home.

I’ll grant you, too, that if you’re a fiend for omitting needless words, “recorded before a live audience” will set your teeth on edge, because it uses more words than necessary to get the idea across. But even shorter than “recorded before an audience” is “recorded live” -- or just “live.” The conductor and violinist Andre Rieu has released both a CD and DVD version of his “Live in Dublin” concert, and surely that name is clear and economical of words. Why, there’s also a “Ray Charles Live” album, recorded in 1987. And although the singer and pianist recently died, even now there’s nothing inaccurate about that recording’s name.

Scott Bain, of Bothell, Wash., writes: “The verb ‘founder’ comes to us from the nautical tradition, meaning ‘make no headway; be stalled.’ Unfortunately, the misspoken version ‘flounder’ has become far more commonplace than the correct term, and thus we are losing an elegant and pleasing word. I wish there was something we could do about this. However, I’ve heard ‘flounder’ used by folks like Garrison Keillor, and I realize my cause is already lost.”

Dear Scott: You’re right that “founder” has a nautical meaning but, I’m afraid, confused about what that is. A ship that founders fills with water and sinks. The verb comes to us from the Old French word “fondrer,” meaning “plunge to the bottom” or (in non-nautical senses) “collapse.”

You’re also right that people confuse “founder” and “flounder.” “Flounder” means “move clumsily” or “struggle.” So, for instance, an inexperienced sailor might cause his boat to flounder. And if he doesn’t pull himself together, the boat might eventually founder and be lost. The cause of keeping the two words distinct, however, is not lost. All major dictionaries give both words, without any overlap in meaning.

Valerie Guenther, of Detroit, writes: “I’m curious about the etymology of ‘vet’ in its rather recent meaning ‘investigate (a person’s) background.’”

Dear Valerie: The origin of “vet” is just what you might imagine, and here’s how the meaning you give came about. First we had veterinarians -- animal doctors. Then people started casually calling them vets. Then people began taking their animals to be “vetted.” Then when they went to be examined by their own doctors, they started saying -- probably to be funny -- that they were being “vetted.” Finally, about a hundred years ago, people began to use the word for other kinds of examination. For instance, here’s a 1904 passage by the writer Rudyard Kipling: “These are our crowd. ... They’ve been vetted, an’ we’re putting ’em through their paces.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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