Fetch me a thesaurus

A reader called today (somehow she ended up with me) to object to our writers’ use of the word fetch. She wondered why we would use such an old-fashioned word. To her, the word smacks of colloquialism. I was not really prepared to defend fetch, so I grabbed my desk dictionary, which mentioned nothing about the word being colloquial. I think the reader thought I was just another Southerner defending our honor, but the truth is that I just didn’t have a good argument for or against fetch.

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Here is the passage from today’s paper that apparently prompted the call:

Young’s sister, Meredith Fisher, told detectives that she had stopped by her sister’s home Nov. 3 to fetch a fax for her brother-in-law when she found Michelle Young cold and bloody.

The reader suggested that she had never seen that word in Northern newspapers. (She was calling from Pinehurst, but acknowledged being a Northerner.) After we hung up, I checked LexisNexis for fetch in the New York Times and the Washington Post. I found it used mostly in financial contexts, as in the company fetched a certain price, which is how we use it most often in our paper. I also checked the Associated Press and found instances of fetch to mean to go get something, which we have also used in our paper.

Then I turned to “Garner’s Modern American Usage.” Bryan A. Garner writes that fetch was once a respectable word, but that it has undergone “depreciation,” perhaps because of its association with dogs or with hick talk. (He cited its use on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”)

So that is why the word grates on our reader. It sounds archaic and colloquial. I guess writers like it because it serves a purpose and maybe because it sounds conversational to them.

If a writer uses fetch to mean to go and get something, he or she could offend the sensibilities of some readers. But fetch can be just the right word in some contexts.

[Later in the day, I checked Eric Partridge’s “Usage and Abusage,” a usage book with a British slant. Partridge writes, “For many Americans fetch is, unfortunately, a homely and obsolescent word.”]

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.