The Grammarphobia Blog

The saucy source of “liaise”

Q: The word “liaison” has been around for quite some time, but at a recent lunchtime meeting someone offered to “liaise” with others. This usage makes me cringe, but what’s your take on it?

A: We liaise a lot—that is, we work together on matters of mutual concern—but we don’t use the term “liaise” (it sounds like jargon to us).

Nevertheless, the verb “liaise” is standard English, a back-formation that’s been around for nearly a century, and a word with roots in the 1600s.

We’ve written many blog posts about back-formations—words formed by dropping parts of existing ones. New words have been formed this way for many hundreds of years.

Examples of verbs that started as back-formations from nouns include “injure” (from “injury”), “babysit” (from “babysitter”), “escalate” (from “escalator”), “curate” (from “curator”), and  “surveil” (from “surveillance”).

We can add the verb “liaise” to the list. It’s a back-formation (from the noun “liaison”) that emerged in British military slang during World War I, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Oxford’s earliest citation comes from C. F. Snowden Gamble’s The Story of a North Sea Air Station, which is about the Royal Flying Corps in 1914-18.

Snowden Gamble’s book was published in 1928, but it includes this 1916 quote by Lord Fisher, Admiral of the Fleet: “I want a soldier … to keep in touch with the Navy and so ‘liaise’ or exchange inventions which may be suitable.”

Apparently “liaise” had staying power, since British military types were still using it in the next war.

The OED cites a comment that appeared in a 1941 issue of the journal American Notes and Queries, remarking on a recent instruction sheet issued by Britain’s Home Guard: “in the event of certain circumstances, it stated, two groups were ordered to ‘liase’ with two others.”

And a year later, in 1942, the New Statesman commented:
“ ‘To liaise’ … was at first frowned on by the pundits: its usefulness … soon came to outweigh its objectionableness.”

The OED defines “liaise” as meaning “to make liaison with or between.” By the 1950s, according to the dictionary’s citations, the usage had been absorbed into civilian usage.

The noun that it came from, “liaison,” can ultimately be traced to the Latin verb ligare (to bind). And when it first came into English, in the mid-17th century, it was decidedly civilian.

The original “liaison” was a cooking term (we’re not making this up). It meant “a thickening for sauces, consisting chiefly of the yolks of eggs,” the OED says.

This noun, which was borrowed from French, also for a time meant “the process of thickening,” Oxford adds.

The dictionary’s earliest citation in English is from a cookbook by an English courtier and intellectual, Sir Kenelm Digby, who died in 1665. (He left his recipes behind, and they were published posthumously in 1669.)

In a recipe for a mutton pot-roast, we find this line: “The last things (of Butter, bread, flower) cause the liaison and thickening of the liquor.” (The noun “liaison” appears several other times in the book, also in connection with a thickened broth or gravy.)

The noun took on new meanings in the early 19th century.

First, it came to mean an intimate (sometimes illicit) relationship or connection; and in 1816 it acquired a military sense, defined by the OED as “close connection and co-operation between two units, branches, allies, etc., esp. during a battle or campaign.”

In the early 20th century, this military sense of “liaison” also became common in corporate, governmental, and other civilian usages.

As you say, “liaison” has been around for quite some time. Our guess is that “liaise” will be with us for a while too, whether we like it or not.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

­