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Why a garnished wage isn't a paycheck served with parsley

Garnishing a dish with sprigs of fresh parsley, lemon slices and vegetables sliced up to look like flowers can be a lovely way to spruce up a meal. But do you know what's not lovely at all? Having your wages garnished. 

A listener named Bryan asks, "Why is it that when you 'garnish' a plate of food, you add something to it, but when you garnish someone's wages you take something away?"

Good question.

The verb "garnish" comes into English from Old French. Early on it meant to furnish or equip, particularly with arms or provisions. The definition is later expanded to mean to outfit something, maybe clothing, with adornments or decorations. By the 17th century, that something could also be a dish on a table.

The legal meaning of "garnish" goes back to the 16th century, when it meant to serve notice on someone for the purpose of getting money owed on a debt. From there, it's not hard to see how we get the meaning of taking money by legal authority, as in to garnish someone's wages.

Those are the two more familiar verb forms of "garnish," but do you ever use the verb "garnishee"? In the 17th century, the noun form of "garnishee" was used to refer to the person whose money was being garnished. Around that same time, there were also some compounds floating around such as "garnishee summons." The noun "garnishee" was re-interpreted as a verb, and that's how people started to use it.

In Bryan Garner's Modern American Usage, he says that "garnishee" is usually reserved for the noun form and "garnish" for the verb. But if you look in standard resources, you will see both "garnish" and "garnishee" for the verb form. 

Can you think of other words with multiple, seemingly contradictory meanings? Let us know below.


Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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