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shameless pleading

Ditch

And the cats want Fancy Feast to be much fancier.

Dear Word Detective:  Way back in elementary school, there was one creature abhorred more than any other–the “D-er.” This despicable person would cut in front of another in one of the many lines we always seemed to find ourselves in. This was called “ditching,” shortened often to “d-ing.” I have asked the Internets, but they remain stubbornly quiescent on the matter, as did several dictionaries. Perhaps the word is limited to Central Ohio school systems? You’re my last hope, O Mighty Word Detective! — Not a D-er in Ohio.

At last, my genius is acknowledged! By the way, you can call me Obi Word. OK, here’s the plan: abolish all organized sports and outlaw TV, movies, and internet video. Force people to read again. Then make teaching the highest-paid profession and college education free and mandatory. Conduct driver’s license exams in Latin and set a national speed limit of 40 mph. Make all cell phones coin-operated and text-messaging a felony. Make bottled-water companies say what’s in the stuff, and allow claiming cats as dependents for tax purposes. Have I left anything out?

OK, back to the real world. “Ditch” is based on the Old English “dic,” which also gave us “dike.” From the beginning, “ditch” meant “a long and narrow excavation in the ground, especially one designed to carry water, as for drainage,” but early on “ditch” also meant the long mound of dirt excavated to make that trench, i.e., a “dike.” So for most of the 16th and 17th centuries, “ditch” and “dike” were vaguely synonymous.

“Ditch” became a verb in the 14th century meaning “to dig a ditch, especially to surround with a ditch as a means of fortification or marking boundaries” (“The several parcels of land … shall be inclosed, hedged, ditched, or fenced,” 1788). In the early 19th century, “to ditch” began being used to mean “throw into or as into a ditch” (Oxford English Dictionary). “Ditch” in a figurative sense meaning “to discard, jilt, abandon or defeat” followed soon after, and by the time of World War II, “to ditch” had become Royal Air Force slang for “to attempt an emergency landing in the sea.” This use was no doubt influenced by the earlier use of “ditch” as a noun to mean the sea in general and the English Channel in particular.

People have probably been standing in lines since the first mastodon roast, but only with the advent of the industrial revolution and urban congestion did we start inventing terms for the practice of not waiting your fair turn. “Queue jumping,” “cutting in line,” and “butting/barging/budging in line” are all fairly well-know terms for the practice. “Ditch the line,” however, is rarely heard outside the US Midwest, and has occasioned several discussions in recent years on the American Dialect Society email list (ADS-L).

It turns out, and I was quite surprised by this, that “to ditch the line” is used almost exclusively in Central Ohio, particularly in Columbus and surrounding areas of Franklin County (which is where my wife Kathy grew up and quite close to where we live now). Steven H. Keiser of the Department of Linguistics at Ohio State University in Columbus has been researching use of the phrase for several years, and has discovered several interesting angles to use of this “ditch,” including one that may help explain its origin.

The question, of course, is how “to ditch,” even in its slang sense of “jilt, abandon, discard,” could come to mean “butt into line.” It might be simply a greatly extended use of the “discard” sense to mean “blithely disregard the rights of other people in line,” but that seems a stretch. Some have suggested that a queue-jumper metaphorically “digs a ditch” in the middle of the line and steps in, but that seems even more elaborate and unlikely.

It has also been suggested that this “ditch” actually has no connection to the “trench” sort of ditch but is actually a modified form of the 18th century English slang term “to dish,” meaning “to ruin, defeat, circumvent” (from the sense of food being done and “dished,” i.e., put on plates). The same “dish” is found in the slang phrase “dish it out” and its modern relative, “dish the dirt” meaning “tell gossip.” Interestingly, and perhaps significantly, Steven Keiser at OSU spent some time asking people in and around Columbus about “ditch,” and discovered that people over the age of 40 (in 2001) tended to remember using the term “dish” to mean “cut in line,” while young children used, as you note, simply “D.” While not conclusive, the use of “dish” in this sense by the older generation may well indicate that “dish” is indeed the source of this sense of “ditch.”

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