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.
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.”
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.