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January 10, 2020  |  Friday words #204  |  1416 hit(s)

Just yesterday I learned a new term from the editor and linguist Johnathon Owen. On Twitter, he said he'd run across the term wet signature. As other people noted, there are related terms wet ink, wet stamps, and wet documents.

Why this interest in wet things? How can a document be wet? And isn't all ink wet?

This last question leads us to an understanding of the term. Wet ink is contrasted with digital ink or e-ink. A wet stamp is one that uses a stamp pad and (wet) ink. A wet document is one printed out on paper and signed with a wet signature, which is to say, with a pen and not with a digital signature.

These are terms used in the world of contracts and document-signing and document-approving, where they're well established. Should you be curious, you can find information about all forms of signing on a page from the Upcounsel site[1].

Aside from the strange picture that terms like wet ink and wet document conjure up, they're interesting because they're retronyms—terms that are used to distinguish an older version of a thing from a newer version of it. The classic example is acoustic guitar; until electric guitars were invented, all guitars were acoustic, so you didn't need the term acoustic guitar. Other examples are brick-and-mortar store, snail mail, and analog clock. I'm sure you can think of more. So once such a thing existed as a digital signature, we inevitably were going to need a retronym for the old-fashioned kind. Interesting that it turned out to be wet.

On to origins. Suppose you were going to move house this weekend and you lined up some friends to help carry stuff. But they call and say that they can't come after all. Uh-oh, they've left you in a lurch.

To lurch is to stumble around, so how does that relate to being left abandoned? This is an example where two words—lurch and lurch—look the same but might come from different roots. The origin of the verb to lurch isn't certain, but it might be related to lurk. Or it might be related to an old sailing term lee-larches that described a ship heaving to its side in rolling waves.

In the expression leave in a lurch, lurch is a noun of an apparently different origin. One theory is that comes from lorche or lourche, the name of a game (everyone says it was something like backgammon). Here, lurch referred to a state in which one player was hopelessly behind. (In cribbage, a lurch is a term similar to skunk.) Another possibility is that lurch is a variant on lash; there are examples from the late 1500s that sound like this ("My Nell hath stolen thy fynest stuff, & left thee in the lash"). This second theory has evidence but no real explanation.

Because neither sense of lurch goes back to a definitive origin, it's possible that they go back to a common ancestor. But the trail goes cold before the 1500s, so we're left … yes, in a lurch.

[1] I was amused by this definition of a signature: "a signature involves each party drawing amateur art next to his name as an indication of authenticity."

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Nancy Friedman   10 Jan 20 - 3:24 PM

Huh. I've always heard it as "left in the lurch, not a.

Nancy Friedman   10 Jan 20 - 3:25 PM

Well, phooey. My attempt at punctuation and formatting was a complete fail.