Dear Word Detective: I recently finished a crossword puzzle containing the answer “glom.” I was able to determine this from having seen it in previous puzzles. It is, apparently, a slang word for “seize.” I would have guessed “grab” or “nab,” if they fit the puzzle. Is “glom” referring to “seize” in the context of a car engine seizing up after running out of oil? I have never encountered this word outside of a crossword puzzle. — Anthony Goldstein.
That’s a good question, and I’m sorry it took me a while to get around to answering it. I get so many questions that I often put aside the good ones for later use. Unfortunately, I also sometimes forget to look at my “to do” file. For a year or two. And then I’m afraid to. I have the horrible feeling that there are questions in there about things Monica Lewinski said to Ken Starr back in 1998. Oh well, sic transit gloria mundi. It’s a good thing the Romans didn’t have email, or I’d be apologizing to them, too.
Your question jumped out at me way back when because I was surprised that you had never run into the word “glom” before. I remember hearing and using it back in the late 1960s, and while I wouldn’t say that it’s a core element of my vocabulary, I still probably use it at least every few months. It also seems fairly popular in the media, and a search of Google News produces current examples from sources as disparate as The Huffington Post (“And you remember when conservatives thought stopping people from ‘glomming’ off government programs was a good thing.”) and Science Daily (“The nanoparticles ‘glom onto the flies,’ Rand noted while watching a video of flies in the test tubes.”).
In any case, “to glom” does mean, as you gathered, “to grab, snatch, seize or steal,” and it’s usually used in the phrase “to glom on to.” It’s used, of course, to mean literally “to steal” (“I learnt that stealing clothes from a clothes-line is expressed in Hoboland by the hilarious phrase, ‘Glomming the grape-vine’,” 1925). But “glom” is also often used in a more figurative sense to mean “to appropriate preemptively” (“I got to the wedding early, but the groom’s drinking buddies had already glommed on to all the good seats”) or “to attach oneself to another person with unwarranted familiarity” (“I tried to talk to Debbie at the party, but some dork had glommed on to her and was talking her ear off”).
There are two surprising facts about “glom.” One is that it is a fairly old word, first recorded in English in 1907, albeit with a slightly different spelling (“We … discovered that our hands were gloved. ‘Where’d ye glahm ’em?’ I asked. ‘Out of an engine-cab,’ he answered,” The Road, Jack London). The other is that “glom” has a distinguished pedigree. It’s simply a form of the Scots word “glaum,” meaning “to snatch,” which in turn comes from the Gaelic “glam,” meaning “to grab or clutch.” It’s still considered slang in English, so it’s probably best not to use it in memos to your boss (“Third Quarter widget sales are slightly down due to Acme glomming on to our Panamanian market share”), but for everyday use, “glom” is a very handy little word.