Saturday, April 30, 2011

Annals of prescriptivism: Remit

I’ve lately turned to crosswords as an insomnia remedy, so at last I’m getting familiar with the standard puzzle lexicon (ASTA, NOLO, LYE, SLOE, etc.). I wouldn’t have guessed REMIT would be on the list, but I’ve seen it twice this month in the NYT puzzle, both times with the same "send a payment" sense as a clue.

Remit caught my eye because, thanks to Ambrose Bierce, I know of its brief career as a usage shibboleth. For a few decades of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the “send a check” sense of the verb was roundly disparaged by American usage mavens. Here is Richard Grant White, who knew how to rant, writing in “Words and Their Uses,” 1870:
Remit. — Why should this word be thrust continually into the place of send? In its proper sense, to send back, and hence to relax, to relinquish, to surrender, to forgive, it is a useful and respectable word; but why one man should say to another, I will remit you the money, instead of, I will send you the money, it would be difficult to say, did we not so frequently see the propensity of people for a big word of which they do not know the meaning exactly, in preference to a small one that they have understood since childhood.
J. H. Long, “Slips of Tongue and Pen,” 1889:
Do not use remit for send. Remit means to send back, to relax, to surrender, to forgive. "To send a remittance," is still worse.
Albert Newton Raub, “Helps in the Use of Good English,” 1897:
Remit for send. — The word remit means to "send again," or "to send back," and there seems to be no good reason why it should be used for the word send. If one were to comply literally with the request to remit when a bill is sent, he would send the bill back instead of paying it. The word has, however, found a place in commercial transactions from which it could be dislodged with difficulty.
Ambrose Bierce, “Write It Right,” 1909:
Remit for Send. "On receiving your bill I will remit the money." Remit does not mean that; it means give back, yield up, relinquish, etc. It means, also, to cancel, as in the phrase, the remission of sins.
You’ve got the usual objections here: The imputation that people who use the word are trying to sound fancy; the assertion that remit “doesn’t mean” what people are using it to mean; the lament that it’s business jargon, polluting the pure stream of noncommercial English.

But the outbreak of peeving didn't spread far. Robert Palfrey Utter, in “Every-Day Words and Their Uses” (1916), administered a dose of reality:
The facts do not bear out the assertion that "remit should not be used in place of send; remit means to send back." Remit does not mean send back except in the phrases now rare, remit  to prison, remit to custody. It does not mean send in ordinary senses, but has the special meaning to send money or valuables, used either with direct and indirect objects, as, "Remit me a hundred dollars," or absolutely, as, "He was compelled to remit," "Please remit."
How right he was:  The OED has remit meaning “To send or transfer (something, esp. money) to a person or place” dated to 1545-44, when it appeared in the Statutes of the Realm in the reign of Henry VIII, and in continuous use ever since. But quotes from Johnson, Jefferson, and Macaulay would  not, perhaps, have persuaded the most committed peevologists; remit probably survived not because of its pedigree but because (as Raub noted) it had made itself useful as a term of commerce.


Kay L. Davies said...

Very interesting, and of course it led me to think about the term "remittance man".
Wikipedia offers an interesting discussion of the remittance man in history and in the literature of Mark Twain, Robert Service, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
— K

Kay, Alberta, Canada
An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

Bryan White said...

Strangely enough, I'm almost disappointed that this turned out to be bogus. It sounds just like one of those cases where the business community is using a "fancy" word in place of a simple one in an effort to inflate their own importance and sound more "professional". I guess they're off the hook on this one.

Jonathon said...

I find it funny that someone would consider remita big word and send a small one.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I'm sure the use of "remit" can from the fact that you were sending the money back in answer to the bill, not just sending the money period. It's a useful distinction - you're paying after receiving the goods, not before - and I'm not surprised it came about.