Jewish World Review Jan. 9, 2004 / 15 Teves, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Confused about the word "hearsay"; "Burgle"; "waiting in line" or "waiting on line"?
I'm confused about the word "hearsay." Isn't "hearsay" just evidence that is not allowed in court?
S. W., New Britain, Conn.
Dear S. W.:
"Hearsay" is used in general to mean simply "rumor," but in a court and in legal contexts it has a very specific meaning.
Hearsay is a statement made by a person who is not under oath that is offered in court as evidence that what the statement asserts is true. The problem with such a statement is that it is not considered legally trustworthy. If it had been made under oath, it would be trustworthy because, theoretically at least, a person under oath must tell the truth.
Because of its untrustworthiness, a hearsay statement is generally not admissible in court as evidence that the statement is true. There are numerous exceptions to this general rule, however.
For example, a statement such as "Look out! He's got a gun!" made spontaneously during a startling event would probably be admissible as a so-called "excited utterance." The theory is that the statement, though not made under oath, is inherently trustworthy because the possibility of fabrication is slight.
Hearsay statements may be admitted for purposes other than as proof that what the statement asserts is true. For example, if a witness has made contradictory statements, they may be offered as evidence to impeach the witness - that is, to show that the witness cannot be believed.
"Hearsay" was first recorded in 1532. The term "hearsay evidence" dates from 1753.
A news report last night said that someone "burgled" a house; are my local newspeople getting silly on me?
A. H., Los Angeles, Calif.
Dear A. H.:
"Burgle" is a real word; it has been in use in English for quite some time now (it is considerably older than both your news anchors, as a matter of fact). However, "burglary," which means "forcible entry into a building especially at night with the intent to commit a crime (as theft)," and "burglar" ("one who commits burglary") have been around much longer, since at least the 16th century.
"Burgle" and its synonym "burglarize" didn't break into the language until the 19th century, arriving almost simultaneously (believe it or not, "burgle" was slightly earlier, as it first appeared in print in 1870, while "burglarize" first turned up in 1871). "Burgle" is a back-formation (that is, a word formed when people remove a presumed suffix or prefix from a longer word) from "burglar." "Burglarize" comes from "burglar" as well, with addition of the familiar "-ize" ending. Both verbs were once disparaged by grammarians, as "burgle" was considered to be "facetious" and "burglarize" was labeled "colloquial," but they are now generally accepted.
"Burglarize" is slightly more common in American English, whereas "burgle" seems to be preferred in British English.
Which is correct, "waiting in line" or "waiting on line"?
J. K., Albany, N.Y.
Dear J. K.:
Both are correct - the one that you use depends mainly on where you happen to have grown up. Most Americans are far more likely to say "in line" than "on line," but people who live in or near New York City show the opposite preference.
Exactly how and when this difference in usage originated isn't known. Commentators on language first took note of it in the late 1950s. Examples of "on line" have since been recorded in many parts of the country, but there's no doubt that New York City is still the place where it's most at home.
Appreciate this column? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
12/31/03: The past tense of "plead''; Is "old adage'' redundant?; Where did "lounge lizard'' come from?
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services