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Vet

Q From Chris Koenig: I edit copy and have noticed the increasing use of vet as a synonym for approve, as in ‘We can go final on this draft as soon as it has been vetted by the CEO’. Could you clarify the meaning of this word and tell me more about where it came from?

A Vet is a most curious word when you look into its history. Like the noun of the same spelling, it’s actually an abbreviation of veterinary surgeon. The noun came first, about the middle of the nineteenth century, and the verb followed a few decades later.

The initial sense was the obvious one: to submit an animal to examination or treatment by a veterinary surgeon. For example, you might have a horse vetted before racing, to be sure it was fit to run. By the early years of the twentieth century, it had begun to be a figurative term for any careful or critical examination, which remains its principal sense. In Britain, it’s also used for the process of investigating the suitability of a person for a post that requires loyalty and trustworthiness.

The key point about the verb vet is that it puts the focus on the process of examination or consideration, not on the results of that process. Though the end result may well be approval or its reverse, in the past it has not been a synonym for approve.

In your example, its meaning could well be the traditional one. If you’re sure that an explicit approval is implied, then this would be an extension of the idea. But it’s not one that’s in the dictionaries (at least, not yet) and it shifts the idea somewhat beyond the usual meaning.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 3 Feb. 2001

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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: 3 February 2001.