Dear Word Detective: An employee asked me to have a document expunged from his file. “Expunged” is a queer sounding word for “removed.” The sound of it made me want to remove the document vigorously, almost violently. Can you expunge my ignorance of this word by explaining the origin of “expunge”? Many thanks. — Hughe, Vancouver, Canada.

Wow. You can do that? I’m gonna call my old job and have a bunch of stuff nuked. I guess this is the age of rewriting history. I grew up when kids spent the first 18 years of life being threatened that every tiny transgression would go on their “permanent record.” Permanently. Like, you’d be buying a house at age 42 and the guy would say, “Wait, you Superglued the principal’s office door shut when you were 12? Fuhgeddaboudit, pal.” But it occurs to me that, in this age of digital delights, nothing is ever truly deleted because it’s all in the cloud. Many people, I’m told, are afraid of clowns; they ought to be more afraid of clouds.

“Expunge” does have a forceful sound to it, largely because of the explosive “sp” beginning the second syllable (and “exp” reminds you of “explosive” itself). To me, the word has always conjured up the action of vigorously scrubbing something, perhaps day-old eggs in a pan with the scratchy side of a dish sponge.

The modern meaning of “expunge” is “to remove completely; to obliterate; to destroy.” Almost anything can be “expunged.” Houses can be “expunged” by tornadoes, countries can be “expunged” by annexation by a larger neighbor, markets can be “expunged” by technological change, and whole civilizations can be “expunged” by war (“Neither had there ever been so many cities expunged and made desolate.” Hobbes’ translation of Thucydides’ “Peloponnesian War”).

But all these uses of “expunge” are figurative sense of the original meaning of “expunge,” which first appeared in English in the early 17th century. The root of “expunge” is the Latin verb “expungere,” meaning “to mark for deletion from a list, etc., by poking holes above and below the item” (“ex,” out plus “pungere,” to prick or puncture). In a Roman manuscript or list, rather than simply obliterating an item, a scribe would set it off with tiny punctures, indicating that it should be deleted. (That Latin “pungere” is also the root of our English “puncture,” and comes from the same source as “point.”)

In English, “expunge” lost the “puncture” sense and has been used since the 1600s to mean “to strike out, delete, erase,” usually applied to data on a list, on a register, or in a book, file or record (“These words … were ordered by the Court to be expunged or blotted out.” 1602). Of course, those were the days, almost four centuries before Google, when “gone” meant “really, truly gone.”

1 comment on this post.
  1. H. S. Gudnason:

    About 50 years ago, we incoming Harvard freshmen were told that REALLY severe transgressions would cause us to be expunged from the university’s records, so that no evidence of our Harvard existence ever remained. Some of my classmates were expelled (it was the 60s), but, since they still attend reunions, they were clearly not expunged.

    Like the story that the swimming test we had to pass to graduate was imposed as part of the donation that funded the university library in memory of a graduate who had died on the Titanic, expungement was apparently an urban legend. (The swimming test, the library, and the drowned alumnus are all real, but the swimming test was a WWI-era U.S. government requirement, not a quirk of Mrs. Widener.)

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