The Grammarphobia Blog

Etch a kvetch

Q: I don’t want to kvetch too much, but I’m seeing the phrase “etch out” used in place of “eke out.” If this catches on, I’ll have this to say: “E-e-e-k!”

A: I’ve seen this usage a couple of times, but I don’t think you have to worry about the loss of “eke out” in the foreseeable future. I googled “etch out” and found the correct meaning clearly engraved on the minds of most people.

The verb “etch,” by the way, comes from an old Germanic word meaning to cause to eat or be eaten. When the word first appeared in English in the early 17th century, this eating business clearly referred to the eating away of a surface with acid – that is, engraving.

Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary has two early citations for the use of “etch out” to mean “eke out,” but that usage apparently died out in the 17th century (the OED describes it as obsolete).

The verb “eke” is derived from an Old English word meaning to enlarge or increase. It didn’t come to mean to achieve with great effort (as in “eke out a living”) until the 19th century. The first citation for this usage in the OED is from Thomas Jefferson’s Autobiography (1825): “To eke out the existence of the people, every person … was called on for a weekly subscription.”

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