Sunday, June 13, 2010

Annals of peevology: Endorsing "endorse"

From Henry Alford in 1863 to (at least) Eric Partridge in 1954, certain usage traditionalists fought the extension of endorse from the literal sense (to sign the back of a check) to the figurative ("approve, vouch for"). William Cullen Bryant listed the verb on his (circa 1870) "Index Expurgatorius." My buddy Ambrose Bierce called endorse "a commercial word, having insufficient dignity for literary use. You may endorse a check, but you approve a policy, or statement."

Fowler, by 1926, had accepted that one might metaphorically endorse "a claim or argument," but he balked at the rapidly spreading use of the verb in advertising: "To talk of endorsing material things other than papers is a solecism." 

Not all educated opinion was on their side, though. Emerson, an early adopter, had used the new endorse in 1842. And in 1882, the Oxford historian Edward A. Freeman, writing on American-British language differences, dredged up an anecdote from university life to show how far endorse had come toward respectability in the decades since then:
Let me take an Oxford story of perhaps five-and-thirty years ago. A story was told in a common-room of an American clergyman who was in the habit of getting into theological discussions with his bishop, and who was sometimes a little puzzled as to the way in which he ought to behave in such cases towards his spiritual superior. "I had a respect for his office," said the presbyter; "but I did not like to endorse all that he said." A fit of laughter went round the room. Thirty-five years ago there seemed something irresistibly ludicrous in applying a commercial word like "endorse" to agreement or disagreement on a theological matter. I am quite sure that no one would laugh at it now either in America or in Britain; we all endorse, or decline to endorse, positions on all questions, theological, political, philosophical, or any other.

(From "Some Points in American Speech and Customs," Part I, first published in Longman's Magazine, 1882; the link is to a reprint in Littell's Living Age.)


Jed Waverly said...

In the political world the term "endorse" is taken seriously. It is distinguished from "support." For instance, someone might attend an event a candidate is having to support them and encourage them. But that doesn't turn into "endorse" until the person says out loud or writes publicly that they "endorse" the candidac . Assuming an endorsement is inappropriate, and can work against a candidate when a prominent person says to the public that he or she has never endorsed the candidate. That's worse than silence on the matter.

Heck Eastman said...

I agree with Jed Waverly's distinction and take it a bit further afield than just politics. For me, to "endorse" something is always more than to merely "approve"--when you endorse something, you place your own reputation behind it. I suppose this comes from the endorsements used in advertising.

Jan said...

Yes, I didn't mean to imply that "approve, vouch for" exhausted the possible meanings of endorse. Presumably it caught on precisely because it added a useful distinction. The advertising connection, though, made it even more distasteful to Bierce and Fowler; they were just as hostile to the "commercial" words of the day as anti-jargonists today are toward "bottom line" and "core competencies" and the like.

empty said...

In the case of the Mr Ed theme, the word provided little more than a rhyme for "horse".