December 6th, 2006
Text message as a verb / Guardsman vs. Guard
by Barbara Wallraff
Linda Gawronski, of Canton, Mich., writes: “My husband and I had a discussion about the use of ‘text message.’ It is being used as a verb. What would be correct: ‘I text messaged him’ or ‘I texted message him’? I have heard both versions, and they both sound odd. Who makes the rules for a new use of words?”
Dear Linda: We all, collectively, make the rules about new ways to use words. Once upon a time, most of us would have thought the noun phrase “text message” was a silly redundancy, because messages were normally text. Then things like voice mail and alphanumeric pagers came along, so “text message” began to make sense. It’s what’s known as a retronym -- “a word or phrase created because an existing term that was once used alone needs to be distinguished from a term referring to a new development, as ‘acoustic guitar’ in contrast to ‘electric guitar’ or ‘analog watch’ in contrast to ‘digital watch,’” in the American Heritage Dictionary’s definition.
George Hanna, of Leesburg, Fla., writes: “Why isn’t one member of the National Guard called a ‘National Guardman,’ instead of a ‘National Guardsman’? I have a hunch that the answer is, ‘Just because.’”
Dear George: No, actually, we borrowed “guardsman” from England, where various regiments of the army have long been known as “guards”: “horse guards,” “Coldstream Guards” and so on. You might imagine a member of the guards would be a “Guard.” But no, he’s a “Guardsman” -- except when she’s a “Guardswoman.”
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