The Word

Original copy

Oxymorons that aren't

By Jan Freeman
September 7, 2008
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READER BOB LARKIN of Beverly was puzzled by an episode of the PBS series "History Detectives," recently re-aired, wherein the sleuths tried to discover whether they had the "original copy" of Robert E. Lee's surrender order. "Obviously they were looking for the original order," Larkin said in an e-mail. "How can a 'copy' be both an original and a duplicate?"

Original copy, as fans of George Carlin and Richard Lederer know, has been a staple of the joke-oxymoron list for decades, along with jumbo shrimp, guest conductor, terribly happy, and the like. But these are only oxymoronic if you pretend that you're ignorant of one sense of the modifying word - that you think "jumbo" is an absolute measure, you've never used "guest" to mean "substitute" ("guest conductor"), and you believe "terribly" must involve terror.

That's just fooling around, though. We know better, just as we know that copy means both "one of the multiple specimens of a work" ("do you have a copy of 'Middlemarch'?") and a replica ("it's a copy, not an original").

Still, the question made me realize that I didn't know - after a lifetime of proofreading, editing, and writing copy - where the word copy comes from, much less how it acquired its several senses.

The answer is: In several complicated steps, starting with the Latin copia, "abundance." The word could also mean "power" or "right," says John Ayto's Dictionary of Word Origins, "and it appears that its use in such phrases as 'give someone the right to transcribe' led to its application to 'right of reproduction' and ultimately to simply 'reproduction.' "

This was in medieval Latin, before copy became an English word, meaning a written transcript. As early as the 1500s, though, the word was applied to any written text, original or reproduction. And this leads naturally to original copy, designating the earliest version or the model that was transcribed. The Oxford English Dictionary has an example from 1649, a reference to "the Original Copy" of a tract "Manuscrib'd by the King [Charles I] himself."

Even the journalist's sense of copy - the writer's work submitted for publication - takes on a modern flavor at an early date: In Thomas Nashe's polemical pamphlet "Have with Thee to Saffron Walden" (1596), a speaker says "More Copie, More Copie; we [lose] a great deale of time for want of Text."

So it's a few centuries too late to be complaining that copy has two contradictory senses - except, of course, when it's just for fun.

. . .

AUTUMN CHECKLIST: The pencils are sharp, the ink cartridges are full, and the desktops, horizontal and vertical, have been tidied up for fall. Now for a bit of Word housekeeping:

{bull} The other Jan Freeman: Yes, there are two of us, writing and editing and living in Massachusetts. Jan Freeman, the poet and publisher, lives and works in the Pioneer Valley. And I've always assumed that our respective readers knew who was who.

And then, this summer, my cousin in Hartford sent an e-mail with the subject line "You're a poet and I didn't know it." She reproached me for not telling her I was doing a reading in her home city.

So at last I e-mailed the other Jan to ask if she had similar stories. Did she ever: When her family was sitting shiva for her father last summer, she said, an aunt who had just been in Boston said "she was thrilled to see my column in the Globe."

We met for a Coke the other day, and now we're pretty sure we can tell each other apart. If you'd like to know more, though, you can see photos at

*And speaking of the blog: It's a good place to visit for extra Word tidbits, footnotes to the Sunday columns, answers to questions, and links to the many smart language bloggers out there. Come, stay, comment!

* E-mail: I mean to answer it all, but it keeps outrunning me. So if a question is still bugging you, send it again. (I'm happy to get regular mail, too, but I probably won't answer it.)

It's nice to have your name and hometown, but they're not required, and names are withheld on request. Much more important is the subject line, so here's my annual plea: When you e-mail, use a subject line with an actual subject.

There's no way "Your column of 7/11" will evoke the topic, and "Confused!" is not the best way to signal that you have a really interesting question. Good subject lines are "Subjunctive," "Canceled vs. postponed," "Why do people say 'is is'?" If I see those words every time I scan the inbox, I'm much more likely to respond.

That said, no matter what the label, I read and appreciate every e-mail from every reader - and maybe, some year soon, I'll be answering every one as well.

(Annie Rosen/Globe illustration)
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