Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Say not the struggle naught availeth

In today's Word Routes column at Visual Thesaurus, Ben Zimmer  looks at a number of words that are going their own way in Indian English, including undertrial, incharge, and the delightful tiffin. But the one that stood out for me was the verb avail, used as Americans now often use access:
avail: to make use of something, especially an opportunity or offer: "To avail all these benefits, just register online." "Why not avail of our special offers?"
Avail was already on my mind, thanks to a similarly surprising example in yesterday's New York Times. In the page one story, "Hooked on Gadgets," the writer said of a teenager with too many distractions: "His iPhone availed him to relentless texting with his girlfriend."

That differs from the Indian usage, but to me it is equally foreign; I could write "he availed himself of his iPhone" or (more archaically) "his iPhone availed him naught," or maybe "his iPhone availed him to text relentlessly." Indeed, Google Books has plenty of examples of "availed him" plus infinitive -- "It little availed him to produce proofs to his judges" (1820) -- but my brief search found just one avail that parallels the NYT's: "But this availed him to no account whatever" (1880).

Did the writer just blow the idiom, and substitute "availed him to" for the usual "availed him of"? (Which would still have seemed over-formal in the story, but not wrong.) Or have I missed another fashion update? If everyone else has taken to saying things like "this coupon avails me to 15 percent off" and "her talent avails her to an excellent income," please clue me in.

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