When did we start "vetting" political nominees?

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Sept. 3 2008 6:32 PM

Vetting Vet

The origins of vet, verb tr.

Palin and McCain. Click image to expand.
Sarah Palin and John McCain

As details come to light about Sarah Palin's connection to the Alaska Independence Party, her husband's DUI, and her teenage daughter's pregnancy, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications, have questioned whether John McCain "vetted" his running mate properly. Yet the Republican presidential candidate insisted Tuesday that the "vetting process was completely thorough." Where does the expression to vet come from?

It's a figurative contraction of veterinarian. The fancy word for animal doctor originated in the mid-17th century. The colloquial abbreviation dates to the 1860s; the verb form of the word, meaning "to treat an animal," came a few decades later—according to the Oxford English Dictionary the earliest known usage is 1891—and was applied primarily in a horse-racing context. ("He vetted the stallion before the race," "you should vet that horse before he races," etc.) By the early 1900s, vet had begun to be used as a synonym for evaluate, especially in the context of searching for flaws. A character in Rudyard Kipling's Traffics and Discoveries, published in 1904, says of a guard battalion: "These are our crowd. … They've been vetted, an' we're putting 'em through their paces."

Through the early decades of the 20th century, vet was primarily a Britishism. It became fairly popular in the United Kingdom during the 1930s, especially to indicate the examination of candidates for military positions, as well as the inspection of manuscripts or public speeches prior to delivery. In his 1936 biography of G.K. Chesteron, William Richard Titterton wrote: "[N]aturally each article of mine was vetted for libel with a microscope." Over the next couple of decades, it gained traction across the Atlantic. Time magazine appears to have used the word vetting for the first time in 1945 but only in the context of a quote from "The Anatomy of Courage," a newly published study on the psychological effects of war by the Briton Lord Moran: "A young subaltern with 'dark eyes under long lashes, a pink and white complexion' was sent to Moran for 'vetting.' " The word first appears out of quotes in that magazine in 1959 (in an article on picking a new symphony director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic), pops up once in the 1960s, and then several times in the 1980s.

William Safire first tackled vetting for his "On Language" column in 1980. In response to a reader's complaint that Newsweek used the word twice in two weeks, Safire noted that "some dictionaries have it" and that "the Britishism is in vogue use in America today." He dedicated a second column to vetting in 1993, which is right around when the New York Times started using the expression with great frequency—in reference to Bill Clinton appointees, among other topics.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary and Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus.

Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.

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