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April 22nd, 2009

Fellow colleague / curry favor

by Barbara Wallraff

Al Cannistraro, of Clifton Park, N.Y., writes: “I was surprised to see a writer whom I respect use the phrase ‘fellow colleague’ twice in a recent column on the Web site Salon.com. It strikes me as obviously redundant. I was even more surprised at how many results (none pejorative) I found for the phrase when I Googled it. Isn’t ‘fellow colleague’ redundant -- or am I wrong?”

Dear Al: No, you’re not, and yes, it is. The idea of “fellow” is built into “colleague,” and expressing it twice in a row is silly. But even Homer nods -- which is to say, everybody goofs once in a while. Much of the writing on the Internet demonstrates that some people goof a lot more often than that. So please don’t take a large number of Google results as evidence that “fellow colleague” isn’t really a goof.

Just now, when I did a Google search for “fellow colleague” (with quotation marks around the phrase, to show that I was looking for the two words together, not just somewhere on the same Web page), I got 27,400 hits. That isn’t a large number, as Google goes. Even more significant is that when I searched for the phrase on the news sources tracked by Google (at news.google.com), I got only 16 hits. That’s a tellingly small number. In comparison, “fellow employee” got 124 Google News hits, “fellow worker” (which seems a bit odd, even if it is correct English) got 40 and “fellow American” 1,340.

What’s special about Google News is that almost everything there has been professionally edited. So it will tell you whether people with some language expertise like a word or phrase. Ones that are scarce there -- like “fellow colleague” -- probably deserve to be scarce everywhere.

James Wadsworth, of Melrose, Mass., writes: “A friend said something about ‘currying favor’ the other day, and I began to wonder how that use of ‘curry’ could possibly be right. I assume it is an Indian word. Is ‘currying’ favor to develop it, not just obtain it? Like to mix it up into a palatable dish?”

Dear James: You’re supposing that word history makes sense -- which is rarely the case. The history of the verb “curry” is even more nonsensical than average. The Tamil language of India does have a word “kari,” which gave us our noun “curry” in the late 1500s. But the Tamil word just means “a sauce for rice” and has nothing to do with the verb you’re wondering about. This “curry” came from Old French about three centuries earlier. The Old French word meant a range of things, including “to put in order,” “equip” and “brush a horse.”

This is the point at which the word history becomes downright fantastical. The phrase “curry favor” originated as “curry favel,” with “favel” referring in Old French to a fawn-colored beast who symbolized dishonesty. (Blame it on Fauvel the donkey, who was the protagonist of a poem that scandalized 14th-century France.) According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to “curry favel” and its later equivalent “curry favor” mean to “seek to win favour, or ingratiate oneself with another, by officious courtesy or unworthy complaisance.”

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

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