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Q From Rand Lee: My mother descended in part from Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants. One expression that she used throughout my childhood was read the table (read being pronounced red), meaning clear the table after a meal. She also used reading (redding), as in “Your brother is reading the table”. Growing up I assumed that to read meaning to clear was related somehow to the archaic English verb to ready, ie, to make ready or to prepare. What do you think?

A I think it’s one of the more interesting terms in the American language with a history that’s complicated and often misunderstood.

It’s known mainly in Pennsylvania but the Dictionary of American Regional English records it widely but sporadically across much of the north-central US and elsewhere, often as the result of out-migration from that state. As you note, it’s said commonly as red but also as rid and sometimes ret. It’s usually spelled redd — not least in Redd-Up, an annual springtime city-wide clean-up in Pittsburgh.

Because of its focus, it has often been assumed to derive from the speech of its German settlers (as you mentioned, called Pennsylvania Dutch, where Dutch is a mishearing of Deutsch). That’s in part because of the Middle Low German redden, to make ready, put in order, tidy, organize, pay or settle and the old Dutch verb redden to put right, settle, tidy up or put in order.

However, your suggestion of its origin is much nearer the truth. Redd is an ancient English verb with much the same sense. It is Scottish, northern Irish (presumably as a result of the plantation of Scots in Ulster in the seventeenth century) and also northern English. I’ve written about this previously.

Its history is complicated and confusing, since another verb, rid (specifically in the sense of freeing an area from rubbish or obstacles), and also rede — also a Scots term, now rare, with similar senses to redd — have become deeply intertwined with it to the point at which it’s almost impossible to tell their stories apart. It may indeed be that ready is also part of the mix.

The Oxford English Dictionary remarks, at the end of a long note about the etymology of redd in a recently revised entry, “In U.S. use perhaps partly reinforced by Pennsylvania German, although it is possible that use in Pennsylvania may simply result from Scots input in the English of this area.” This is supported by some of the DARE research results from elsewhere in the US, in which the respondents were of Scots or Ulster descent without German connections.

Whatever its origin, it continues to puzzle out-of-state visitors to Pennsylvania who unwittingly come across it:

Recently, an obvious non-native was volunteering her services to a charitable organization when the chief volunteer suggested that she “redd up” the kitchen. “What?” the volunteer replied, looking perplexed. ... They eventually got around the conversational roadblock, and the volunteer did, indeed, help redd up the kitchen. I don’t think she realized she was redding, however.

Altoona Mirror (Pennsylvania), 14 Feb. 1993.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 9 Jun. 2012

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 9 June 2012.