Q: In one of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum mysteries, Stephanie refers to a trash “chute” in her apartment building as a “shoot.” Was the copy editor asleep at the wheel? Or did I doze off while the spelling changed?
A: The usual spelling for the shaft down which garbage, laundry, and other stuff drops is “chute.” However, some standard dictionaries, including Oxford Dictionaries online, list “shoot” as an acceptable variant.
In fact, “shoot” (actually, “shoote”) was the original spelling of the noun, which showed up in the early 1500s and has roots in Anglo-Saxon days, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.
The “chute” spelling, Chambers says, first appeared in the US in the late 1700s and was influenced by chute, a French term for the fall of water.
“The French form came into American English through contact with early French-speaking explorers and settlers in North America,” the etymology guide adds, noting that the ultimate source of the French term is cadere, the Latin verb meaning to fall.
This story begins with the verb “shoot,” which meant “to go swiftly and suddenly” when it showed up in Old English (spelled sceote) in the late writings of King Aelfred (849-899), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
When the noun “shoot” first appeared in the early 1500s, the OED says, it referred to “an act of shooting (with firearms, a bow, etc.); a discharge of arrows, bullets, etc.”
But by the early 1600s, Oxford reports, the noun was being used to mean “a heavy and sudden rush of water down a steep channel; a place in a river where this occurs, a rapid.”
The dictionary’s earliest example of this sense is from The Secrets of Angling, a book by John Dennys published in 1613:
“At the Tayles, of Mills and Arches small, / Whereas the shoote is swift and not too cleare.” (The OED dates the citation from sometime before 1609.)
In the early 1700s, Oxford says, the noun “shoot” took on a new sense: “an artificial channel for conveying water by gravity to a low level; or for the escape of overflow water from a reservoir, etc.”
By the 1800s, according to OED citations, a “shoot” could convey coal, ore, wheat, timber, cattle, rubbish, and so on. Here’s a trash example from London Labour and the London Poor, an 1851 work by Henry Mayhew:
“Each particular district appears to have its own special ‘shoot,’ as it is called, for rubbish.”
The word “chute,” which first showed up in the 1700s, originally referred to “a fall of water; a rapid descent in a river, or steep channel by which water escapes from a higher to a lower level.”
The OED’s earliest example is from a 1793 diary entry in Five Fur Traders of the Northwest, a book edited by Charles M. Gates and published in 1933: “[We] slept at the chute a Blondeau.”
Chambers cites this diary entry example as evidence that the “chute” spelling entered American English through contact with French-speaking explorers and settlers.
By the early 1800s, the term “chute” was being used in the US to mean “a steep channel or enclosed passage down which ore, coal, grain, or the like is ‘shot,’ so as to reach a receptacle, wagon, etc. below.”
The OED says the term is “usually shoot” in England. However, all the British standard dictionaries we’ve checked list “chute” as either the only or the more common spelling.
The OED doesn’t have any citations for the terms “garbage chute” or “trash chute” used in the sense of a refuse disposal shaft in an apartment building.
However, we’ve found several late-19th-century examples for “garbage chute” in Google Books, including this one from an 1895 collection of documents from the New York State Assembly:
“We recommend for new tenements an airtight ash and garbage chute, as the best solution of the removal of garbage during the day. Without this the tenants will persist in throwing rubbish out of the windows or storing it on the fire escapes.”
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