Awesome.  Will it work with American Idol?

Dear Word Detective:  I know that “vanish” seems like such a simple word; but somewhere between 1967 (when I was in high school and my dictionary was published) and 1983, this simple intransitive verb became transitive.  It was in 1983 that David Copperfield “vanished” the Statue of Liberty.  That was the first I had ever heard it used transitively, and I am curious when the transitive use first appeared. — Charles Anderson.

Whoa.  1983?  We need to get you a new dictionary.  It’s true that most of the really useful words are in your trusty old friend, and I totally understand loyalty to old books.  I still use the Latin dictionary I was given in high school.  But the great thing about Latin is that they’re not adding many new words to it.  That’s not true in English, where new words and new uses for old words are popping up like worms on the sidewalk after a rainstorm.  Good heavens, man, don’t you want to be able to look up “crowdsource” and “googlebomb”?  “Moofing”?  “Unfriend”?  “Overshare”?  Yeah, me neither.  Wake me when we go back to Latin.

I must have slept through Mr. Copperfield’s “vanishing” of the Statue of Liberty in 1983 (I’m assuming he eventually put it back), as well as whatever usage the transitive “vanish” has enjoyed since, because here in 2009 it strikes me as jarring and strange.  The first thing that popped into my mind when I read your question, in fact, was the use of “the disappeared” to mean the victims kidnapped by the Argentine military junta in the 1970s and never seen again.  The original Spanish term, “los desaparecidos,” translates as “those who have been disappeared,” invoking a similarly unusual transitive use (“to disappear someone”) of a normally intransitive verb.

“Vanish” is an interesting little word, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary in the usual intransitive sense as “To disappear from sight, to become invisible, especially in a rapid and mysterious manner.”  Our English “vanish” is actually an aphetic, or cropped, form of the Old French “esvanir” (meaning “to disappear”), which was derived from the Latin “evanescere,” which also gave us the English word “evanescent” for those things which, like youth and low credit card interest rates, do not last long before vanishing.  Incidentally, within that “evanescere” lies the Latin root “vanus,” which means “empty,” and which also produced “vain” and “vanity.”

“Vanish” first appeared in English as an intransitive verb in the early 14th century, and most of its uses, with or without adverbs (“vanish away” was common usage until the 19th century), have been intransitive.  But Mr. Copperfield and his publicity minions didn’t invent or even pioneer the transitive use of “vanish” to mean “to cause to disappear.”  It turns out to have been puttering along in the background since about 1440 (“Thus are the villains … fled for fear, Like Summers vapors, vanished by the Sun,” Marlowe, 1590), although it’s never been nearly as popular as the intransitive use.  It seems, in fact, to have been used since the 19th century almost exclusively in the field of stage magic (“Then he vanishes a birdcage and its occupant … Finally, he vanishes his wife,” 1886) or in contexts where magic is used as a literary metaphor (“Lenin conjured government by mass-democracy out of sight, ‘vanished’ it as conjurors say … ,” H.G. Wells, 1934).  So Copperfield’s use of the transitive “vanish” was well within the jargon of his craft.

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