Q From Douglas Harris: You’ve recently been at the centre of a dispute about the verbs Garnish and Garnishee, which mean to take money from a person’s wages to settle a court debt. What were your conclusions about which form was correct?
A I knew only the garnishee form, which many subscribers emphatically told me was wrong. Some authorities say either is correct, though the balance of opinion lies in favour of garnish.
It’s easy to find hundreds of examples of both forms in recent newspapers. The Deseret News of 1 October 2007 has “A 2005 change to bankruptcy law puts private student loans on par with child support and alimony payments: Lenders can garnish wages if someone doesn’t pay.” The Chicago Sun-Times said on 24 September 2007, “He was wary of taking a job outside of his field because he feared his wages would be garnisheed.”
The discussion in the World Wide Words newsletter shows that opinion on the correctness of these forms is strongly polarised. Jean Rossner e-mailed: “Alas, [garnish] seems to be standard US usage these days. In my days as proofreader and editor, I stopped counting the number of times I corrected it to garnisheed and the editor changed it back again, or the printer just ignored me.” On the other hand, Koven Vance told me firmly that garnisheed was “grotesque and debased ”.
Garnish is in fact the older form. The word is from Middle English, in the sense of equipping or arming, from Old French garnir, probably of Germanic origin and related to warn. The first sense in English was to provide a place with a means of defence, to garrison it, or generally to supply with men, arms, and provisions. This soon modified into the sense of fitting out with anything that adorns or beautifies, though that of decorating food for the table came along much later, near the end of the seventeenth century.
The legal sense of garnish, “to serve notice on a person, for the purpose of seizing money belonging to a debtor”, came out of the ancient sense of warning somebody and was related to the Scots warnis, to warn. Garnishee appeared in the early seventeenth century, reasonably enough using the suffix -ee to create a term for a person whose money has been so seized. The OED’s entry implies that garnishee came to be employed so often semi-adjectivally (garnishee order, garnishee summons, garnishee proceedings) that around the end of the nineteenth century it turned into a verb and partially replaced garnish.
Word history says the verb ought to be garnish, so those who want to spell it that way have etymology (not to mention dictionaries and style guides) on their side. However, the other form is so commonly encountered that it can’t be totally condemned as an error. It’s more a sturdy indefensible.