to vet

Mon Mar 12 18:51:05 UTC 2012

        Yes, I think it's right that the verb "to vet" essentially entered American English in 1980 or so, although it was common in British and Canadian usage long before then and thus available to Americans who chose to use it.  The earliest example I see in an American source (from a search for "vetted or vetting") is in Safire's On Language column, 2 Nov 1980:


"Twice in two weeks," complains Arthur Harris of Arlington, Vt., "Newsweek has used this verb 'vetting.' " Attached was a piece about a Ronald Reagan speech, including the comment: "His edited version was routinely retyped without further vetting."

"I became enraged," fumes Holly Butler of Weston, Conn., "and scrawled all over the Op-Ed page of yesterday's New York Times." The page, attached, cited a submission to "the C.I.A. for official vetting." Expostulates Miss Butler: "Time and Newsweek happen to be the worst offenders so far ... Add this letter to a list you will keep of others who find the word offensive until identified and properly noted in dictionaries."

Some dictionaries have it: Webster's New World defines the word as "to examine, investigate or evaluate in a thorough or expert way," adding that it is a colloquialism.

The word comes from "veterinarian," which originated in the Latin from one who took care of old beasts of burden -the "vet" means "old," as any veteran wordsmith can tell you. In 19th-century England, the verb was used in scholarly circles in this way: "Have you had this manuscript vetted?" The meaning was: "Has this been examined thoroughly, as a veterinarian carefully goes over an animal?"

The Briticism is in vogue use in America today, along with "early on" and "trendy," and shows the first signs of becoming more active and less passive: I've heard "Vet this for me." Soon we will hear of manuscript vetters, antique vetters, social-acceptability vetters, bed vetters, etc.

If not overused, or tossed off with a lifted pinky, the word is a good substitute for "peruse," whose meaning has been changing from "examine" to "glance at." A more specific word is "edit," and a narrower command is: "Check this for factual errors." "Vetting" is a useful activity that deserves a special new name, and I welcome it; so does my pet, Peeve, and the copy editor who vets my prose.>>

        Note that the term in 1980 was applied more to documents than to people.  I see a couple of examples in the modern American political sense from 1984, referring to the Reagan administration, but there are earlier foreign examples.  Notably, (London) Times Newspapers established a vetting committee to scrutinize would-be buyers; the committee ultimately approved Rupert Murdoch as the buyer in January 1981 (which some, subsequently, have seen as a failure of the vetting process).

John Baker

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of Dan Goncharoff
Sent: Monday, March 12, 2012 1:19 PM
Subject: Re: to vet

I can only see a use referring to job candidates in 1987.


On Mon, Mar 12, 2012 at 11:17 AM, Jonathan Lighter
<wuxxmupp2000 at>wrote:

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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      to vet
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> I've always found this verb a little curious and even annoying.  I
> first encountered it in 1981. OED has it from Kipling in its current
> sense and it's apparently been in British use steadily since then.  All the
> cites are British or (evidently in one case ) Canadian.  The documentation
> ends in 1978 and none are from the U.S.
> Since I first heard it, it's become part of the core political vocabulary.
> Is it true that to "vet" (candidates, for example, or news reports, or
> documents) only entered U.S. English around 1980?  Was there a particlular
> "vet vector"?  (Presumably not "Lex Luthor," whose name I had to work in
> here.)
> JL
> --
> "If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the truth."
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