The Grammarphobia Blog

Checks garnished with parsley?

Q: Here’s a pet peeve of mine: the loss of the verb “garnishee.” The use of “garnish” is rampant, especially in broadcast television. Everybody seems to have checks covered with parsley!

A: The situation with the verbs “garnish” and “garnishee” isn’t as black and white (or as parsleyed) as you seem to think.

Among American lawyers, the preferred verb meaning to take property (usually wages) by legal authority is “garnish.” But among their British counterparts, and in a few US jurisdictions, both “garnish” and “garnishee” are used as verbs.

My authority here is Bryan A. Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage. He ought to know, since he’s a lawyer as well as a usage expert. In fact, he trains lawyers in the efficient use of the language.

Garner’s conclusion is that “garnishee” (as a verb) and “garnisheement” are “historically unwarranted and therefore ill advised.”

The Oxford English Dictionary backs him up. Its principal definition of “garnishee” is as a noun for a person whose property is garnished. This noun led to the use of “garnishee” as a verb (and “garnisheement” for the process) in the 1800s.

Nevertheless, both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) seem to prefer “garnishee” for the verb, though “garnish” has been used in this way for almost 500 years.

I’m with Garner. Why not use the shorter, older word?

The English verb “garnish,” whether it means to serve with parsley or with a legal notice, comes from the Old French verb garnir, which had a variety of meanings: to fortify, defend (oneself), provide, prepare, or warn.

It entered English in the 1300s meaning “to fit out with anything that adorns or beautifies; to decorate, ornament, or embellish,” according to the OED.

In the 1400s “garnish” was used to mean to equip or arm oneself (or a fort or garrison), and in the 1500s it was first used in the legal sense.

In the late 1600s “garnish” was first used to mean pretty up a dish for the table. The earliest published citation in the OED is from John Dryden’s translation of Juvenal’s Satires (1693).

Here’s the Dryden passage, from a scene where a sturgeon is ceremoniously brought in on a platter: “With what Expense and Art, how richly drest! Garnish’d with ‘Sparagus, himself a Feast.”

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