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shameless pleading

Screed

Please don’t foam.

Dear Word Detective:  We are renovating our 1926 beach cottage in Laguna Beach.  Two of our workmen have used the word “screed” for a long straight board used to ensure the flatness of a surface.  Is this word the same as the word used for a “lengthy speech” or “harangue”?  If so, what is the connection? — Jim Brown.

“Screed” is a great word, isn’t it?  Of course, like many great words, “screed” is a heavily loaded term, which is what makes it so much fun.  Used in its primary modern meaning of “a very long speech or piece of writing, often in a ranting or polemical tone,” it signals that the writer who labels a speech or essay a “screed” was less than convinced by the “screed” in question.  A reader complains, for example, to the Los Angeles Times about a recent op-ed (“It’s hard to know where to start responding to Benkof’s hate screed, disguised as it is in the cloak of reasonable argument”), while over in Austin the newspaper takes to complaining about its own readers (“Among the anonymous postings was one screed that accused the upset Hazy Hills residents … of all sorts of bad things without supporting evidence”).  The use of “screed” to characterize an opponent’s words is thus a vivid illustration of the first rule of civilized political discourse, which is, of course, “I am passionate and right, but you are nuts and wrong.”

One might imagine, given the contentious connotation of “screed” applied to words, that the sort of “screed” your contractors employ took its name from the use of such a long, flat board to whack one’s opponents.  But the actual origin of the word is, fortunately, perfectly peaceful.

The root of our modern “screed” is the Old English “screade,” meaning “a piece cut off.”  The same root also gave us our modern English words “shred,” “scroll” and “shroud.”  In fact, “screed” is regarded as simply a variant form of “shred,” which preceded “screed” in English by about three centuries.

When “screed” first appeared in English in the 14th century, it meant simply “a fragment cut or torn from the main piece” or, a bit later, “a strip of torn cloth.”  This sense evolved over the centuries to include the use of “screed” to mean “a strip of land” or “a border,” as one might add a fancy border to a piece of cloth or paper.  In the late 18th century, this sense of “long strip of something” produced “screed” meaning “a long list, a lengthy discourse or diatribe, or a gossiping letter,” and our modern polemical “screed” was born (“Mr. Manson threatens a long screed of poetry on the subject,” 1812).

At about the same time, however, the earlier “long strip” sense of “screed” was put to use by plasterers, who applied the term to a variety of devices, including long, straight strips of wood, that they used to ensure that a plastered surface, such as a wall, was perfectly even.  In the building trades today, “screed” is used for nearly any kind of device or arrangement used to ensure that the finished result is level (“A screed of cement and sand is laid later to provide a smooth and level surface for whatever floor finish is to be used,” 1956).

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