Rosie Right 

Our language and how it works.


Sometimes words seem almost to contradict themselves. I was thinking about this when a checker at the grocery store told me to swipe my credit card.

Why would I do that? To me, swiping a card would mean stealing it. Surely she would not have meant that.

Fortunately, a kind friend gave me for Christmas a subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary online, which reported that, as with many words, there are many meanings. Swipe has been used since 1829, but then it meant "to drink hastily and copiously; to drink at one gulp." Surely that is not what the clerk meant. A second meaning in use from 1825 is "To strike at with the full swing of the arms." I wouldn't do that. The third meaning is "sweep," in use since 1881; the fourth is "to steal." At last, I came to the fifth meaning, in use only since 1986. Here was the answer I sought: "to pass (a credit card, identity card, etc.) through an electronic device in order to read and process data magnetically encoded on it."

How the word got from drinking to stealing beats me.

Today's words:

petrolism — petroleum-based politics. Source: Thomas Friedman's Feb. 1 opinion column in The New York Times.

checkout line rage — "extreme anger caused by a perceived wrongdoing or a lengthy wait in the supermarket checkout line." Also: checkout lane rage, according to Word Spy, Jan. 27 (www.wordspy.com).

integrity — I thought we all knew what this means, but on the Merriam-Webster's 2005 Words of the year list it is cited as the word most often looked up in its online site.

A Style editor has called my attention to what he calls the "Unintentional Slam of the Week."

"Wisdom is no longer employed by the Henrico school system." In a Richmond Times-Dispatch story about Katherine Lynn Wisdom, a former substitute teacher who was fined for being drunk in public, the result of students telling officials at Hermitage High School that she seemed intoxicated.


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