The Grammarphobia Blog

Garage sailing, in knots or mph?

Q: A columnist for my local paper in Minnesota wrote that he and his wife went garage sailing. Now I’m wondering how large were his sails, in order to get his garage to move.

A: We’ve also noticed that some people use the term “garage sailing” to mean going to garage sales. We’ve seen “yard sailing,” “estate sailing,” and “tag sailing,” too.

We checked eight standard dictionaries and none of them listed “sail” or “sale” as a verb meaning to go to sales.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary has examples going back to the early 1900s of “sale” used as a verb meaning to shop at sales.

Here’s an example from the July 3, 1901, issue of The Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality: “To go ‘saleing’ in Bond Street.”

And here’s an example from the June 19, 1928, issue of the Daily Express: “Men went ‘sale-ing’ at lunch time.”

As you’ve probably noticed, the words “saleing” and “sale-ing” above were enclosed in quotes, indicating that the writers didn’t consider the usage quite up to snuff.

And if “sale” were a verb, the participle would normally be formed without the “e” (“saling,” as with “whaling” and “scaling”).

You won’t find “garage sailing,” “garage saling,” or “garage sale-ing” in standard dictionaries, but all three are in online references that let readers submit new words for consideration.

The Merriam-Webster Open Dictionary, for example, has reader contributions for both “garage sailing” and “garage saling” with these illustrations:

“Let’s go garage-sailing this weekend!” and “I’m going garage saling on Friday so I can’t go to the zoo.”

In Google searches, we’ve found several hundred examples for each of the various spellings of the participial phrase, including this exchange between a reader and the Chicago Manual of Style’s “You Could Look It Up” blog.

Q. For those who make a hobby of cruising garage sales, are they going “garage sale-ing,” “garage saling,” or “garage saleing?” Or are they not permitted this usage?

A. Oh, my. Is garage saleing anything like parasailing? The mind boggles. As you suspected, this phrase would not survive the red pencil at Chicago. (Why can’t you just go to garage sales?) I can tell you that suffixes like “ing” don’t normally take a hyphen. After that, you’re on your own.

We think the Chicago Manual’s blogger should loosen up a bit. There’s something to be said for and against all these phrases, but we’re talking here about going to garage sales, not submitting a paper to the Philological Society.

We rather like “garage sailing.” It may have begun life as a misspelling or as a substitute for the ungainly “saling,” but we imagine that most people who use the phrase now are doing so for humorous effect.

In fact, the “sailing” image has prompted humorous comments online, like “You measure the distance driven in knots, not miles.” (To be precise, knots aren’t a measure of  distance, so the joker should have said, “You figure your driving speed in knots, not miles per hour.”)

Savvy shoppers know very well that they’re going to “sales,” not “sails,” but the notion of sailing from house to house in search of treasure isn’t inappropriate.

As one woman wrote on a shopping forum, “My husband and I are avid garage ‘sailors.’ ”

We’ll end this with a tip we picked up from a garage sailor on the Web: “Bargain with the man on girly items and the woman on power tools.” (In our home, the woman usually mans the power tools.)

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