The Grammarphobia Blog

Squish, squash!

(A posting on Sept. 18, 2012, about “squash” and “quash” updates and expands upon this item.)

Q: I’ve always thought the word to use when you squelch something is “squash.” But I’m now hearing the word “quash” used instead: “The report was quashed.” Have I been hearing wrong? Or is this another squishy new usage that should be squashed?

A: I’ve done a bit of poking around in the Oxford English Dictionary and, lo and behold, I find that the verb “quash” (meaning to crush, stifle, or destroy) has been perfectly good English since the 13th century.

The OED’s earliest citation, a reference to quashing a woman’s lust, comes from The Owl and the Nightingale (circa 1275), one of the first long comic poems in English.

The dictionary has many published references for this usage of “quash” right up until the present day, including one in Mary: A Fiction (1788), a novel by the British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.

Feuding families in the novel decide that the best way to end a dispute between two potential heirs is to “quash it by a marriage.” (Wollstonecraft, as you may know, was the mother of Mary Shelley, author of the Frankenstein novel.)

As for the verb “squash,” it turns out to be the newbie. It’s been around only since a 1565 English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People: “Ye must, I saye, teare them, rent them, and squashe them to peeces.”

Who says clerical writing has to be dull?

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