Horace Comes to Law School:

A law professor e-mailed me this (prompted by my Correcting Students’ Usage Errors Without Making Errors of Our Own:

Over the years, I have tried to get students to use “garnishee” as a verb, as in “to garnishee an employee’s wages” rather than to garnish wages. I say “to garnish wages” is to sprinkle parsley but even as I say it I think I sound pedantic. Any thoughts?

Here's what I said in response: I don’t teach in the field, so my judgment might not be good here; but I’ve always much preferred “garnish.” True, “garnish” is also used for food, but English speakers are quite familiar with words that have vastly different meanings; no-one really thinks even for a moment about the limbs of forest animals, for instance, when they hear about “bear arms.” So I doubt that “garnish” is even distracting. And garnish certainly isn’t wrong: The Oxford English Dictionary attests it to 1577 (three centuries earlier than “garnishee” as a verb), and Black’s of course lists it as well.

What’s more, “garnishee” strikes me as sounding too much like a noun based on the verb, much as “employee” or “mortgagee.” At first, that’s all I thought it was; some years ago, I learned that it is indeed used as a verb, but it still sounds unpleasant to my ears (though again I stress that this isn’t my field).

But rather than just relying on my ear, let me suggest that we go with Horace, and follow “the will of custom, in whose power is the decision and right and standard of language.” A Westlaw search for ((garnish garnished) +5 wages) & date(> 1/1/2000) reports 675 hits, seemingly (from looking at the first page) almost entirely genuine and not false positives. A search for ((garnishee garnisheed) +5 wages) & date(> 1/1/2000) reports 23 hits. One of those is labeled “[sic],” and 12 use “garnishee” as a noun and not a verb (e.g., “orders the garnishee to withhold attachable wages”). So it looks like there are only 11 hits (one condemnatory, because of the “sic”) for “garnishee” as a verb, as compared to 675 for “garnish.”

That, I think, strongly counsels against the “garnishee” usage. Some people, such as the “sic”ing court (the Second Circuit), might think “garnishee” is wrong. And others who understand and accept the usage would still likely be distracted.

So it seems to me that students are better off learning to use the familiar and broadly accepted “garnish,” notwithstanding the possible (but in my view unlikely) association this may briefly create in the reader’s mind with parsley, rather than the much rarer “garnishee.”

I'm pleased to report that my correspondent e-mailed me back to say that this argument "convinced [him] to go back to garnish as a verb." What do you think?

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