The Grammarphobia Blog

In the beginning were the latkes

Q: Can you use the verb “inaugurate” for an object as well as a person? I sometime use it that way, as in “We’re inaugurating this frying pan by making latkes.”

A: Yes, you can inaugurate an object, a phase of some program or other, or even a frying pan! This of course would be a metaphorical use of the word, since “inaugurate” usually means to introduce something solemnly.

Here’s one of the definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary: “To initiate the public use of, introduce into public use by a formal opening ceremony (a statue, fountain, building, etc.).”

So why not go one step further and initiate a frying pan for private use? In fact, one definition of the verb in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) is simply “to bring about the beginning.”

The word “inaugurate,” which first showed up in print in the early 1600s, comes from the Latin inaugurare, meaning to consecrate or install after taking omens from the flight of birds, according to the OED.

In fact, Samuel Johnson, in his famous 1755 dictionary, defined the word as “to begin with good omens,” though in modern English “inaugurate” has lost its sense of “augury.”

As for “latkes,” the Yiddish word for potato pancakes, the earliest citation in the OED is from a 1927 article in the American Mercury magazine about Jewish cooking. Here’s an expanded version of the citation:

“Similarly, Chanukah, to the Jewish bocher, meant not only slim, yellow candles in a glistening menorah, but luscious potato latkes – pancakes made of grated, raw potatoes, mixed with flour and shortening and fried in schmaltz (rendered chicken or beef fat).”

A “bocher,” by the way, is a young man in Yiddish.

Enjoy!

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