Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Doonesbury does it -- do you?

Several weeks ago, when "Doonesbury" showed Grandma Joanie proposing to move in with Alex, faithful correspondent JHM wrote to comment on a usage in the strip's dialogue. Joanie offers to help Alex pay her rent. "Wait, is there a hitch?" asks Alex. And there is: "I'd have to move in," says Joanie.

For JHM, hitch wasn't quite the right word. "I would've used 'catch,' as in a deal with strings attached," he said, adding a definition from Oxford Dictionaries online: "a hidden problem or disadvantage in an apparently ideal situation: there's a catch in it somewhere."

I would like to say that yes, I too would use catch, not hitch, in this context, and I'm pretty sure I would:  I think of a catch as a preset trap, a hitch as just a random snag in the proceedings. On the other hand, I read right past the hitch in the Doonesbury cartoon, speeding onward to the punch line. So it's obviously not a red-flag distinction for me.

After a quick and unscientific glance at Google News sources, I'd venture to say that the catch-hitch distinction -- as JHM and I make it -- is widely observed: I found catch almost always used to imply a hidden clause or condition, hitch used mostly for "unexpected problem," usually in variations on "it went off without a hitch." But I wonder -- if hitch did start migrating into catch territory, would we notice? Did you?


John Cowan said...

Google Ngrams is our friend here. Looking at just one hitch vs. just one catch shows basically no usage until 1940, with just one hitch dominating between 1950 and 1970, and just one catch the rest of the time, including today. In the case of only one hitch vs. only one catch, which have histories going back to 1870 or so, only one hitch is dominant throughout until the early 60s and doesn't really begin to lose ground until the mid-90s after a long period of coexistence.

So it seems to me you can use either hitch or catch in this connection, and I noticed nothing unusual, though I too would tend to say catch.

(Grandma Joanie? Sheesh. I feel old, even though I'm a grandpa myself. Apparently she was born in 1939, I only in 1958.)

Kay L. Davies said...

I "read right by it" also, although I agree with your definition of the common usage. However, when I'm upset or excited (or both, as is Alex), the wrong word often pops out.

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

(not necessarily your) Uncle Skip said...

Does it really make a difference in understanding the conversation?

Jonathon said...

I would use "catch" too, but I didn't notice "hitch" until I got to the second paragraph of your post.

The Navvy said...

I'd use "catch" but like others, didn't flinch on encountering "hitch" - so King Usage is at work morphing our words. Bets on how long before this shows up one some curmudgeon's peeve list?

Gregory Lee said...

But if there's a catch, then that's a hitch, so although I see how one could mistakenly use "catch" for "hitch" (if there's a snag which is not hidden), I don't understand how substituting "hitch" for "catch" could be a mistake.