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Q From Bob Lee: I note with a bit of dismay that meld, which had always meant to show or display, and entered the common vocabulary when the game of canasta became popular (when one laid down a set of cards, one was said to meld), is now assumed by most users to mean mix or merge. Would you care to comment in your column?

A The situation’s a bit more complicated than that. There are actually two different verbs here.

I well remember the post-war fashion for canasta, which my older brothers played with great enthusiasm, if inexpertly. This brought the verb meld into much wider circulation than it ever had before, though it had been recorded from the 1880s in connection with other card games, such as pinochle and rummy. This sense, of laying down or declaring a combination of cards, is from German melden, to announce. As it appeared first in the US, one may guess that it derives from German immigrant usage.

Oddly, the verb had made an earlier appearance in the language, in medieval times, when it meant much the same as the modern German verb — to make known or announce, later also to inform against a man or accuse him. It was an Old English term that derived from Germanic sources. It vanished from the language in the fifteenth century, only to be reintroduced from the modern German language in a different sense.

The other verb, meaning to merge or combine, is by comparison an upstart — it’s recorded only from the middle 1930s. In grammar as well as meaning it’s a blend, since it was almost certainly created by combining melt and weld. Early examples suggest it arose in cookery, meaning the blending of flavours. It has become a standard part of the language, more in the US than the UK.

Meld as a noun meaning a blend or combination is rather later. The Oxford English Dictionary has its first example from 1973, but that’s easily beaten by Star Trek, in which Mr Spock often employs a Vulcan mind meld. Its first appearance was in the first season, on 3 November 1966.

Page created 7 Mar. 2009

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Last modified: 7 March 2009.