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The Word

More than friends

What it means to be ‘an item’

By Jan Freeman
August 30, 2009

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In the era of spill-it-all social networking, can we still describe a possibly amorous couple as an item, or is such discreetly winking terminology out of date? Chuck Eisenhardt of Arlington, after using the label in a Facebook posting several months ago, wrote to ask whether it was appropriate there, and where it had come from in the first place. “It sounds as though it springs from big-city society pages: polite, but to the point,” he said.

The romantic item, however, began its career not in good society but in the celebrity gossip columns, where it still flourishes. Search Google News, and you’ll find dozens of stars and wannabes either revealing or denying that they’ve been item-ized: Kate Hudson and A-Rod, Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson, Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler, Renee Zellweger and Bradley Cooper.

Several slang dictionaries call this item a 1980s usage, and even the Oxford English Dictionary, in an entry revised in 2001, dates it only to 1970. But zillions more words have been made Web-accessible in the past few years; today, a search of Google News turns up examples of item for “suspected romance” as early as the 1930s. (Most of them, culled from ProQuest’s news archives, are available to nonsubscribers only as snippets; but for our purpose, snippets supply more than enough context.)

The earliest example I’ve dug up so far is a “Looking at Hollywood” column from October 1937, that appeared in the Chicago Tribune (and surely in other papers). “Gloria Blondell and Ronald Reagan are an item,” it alleged. (They were costarring in “Accidents Will Happen,” with Reagan as a young and honest insurance man.) Just a few months later, Hedda Hopper launched her Hollywood gossip column, and for the next few decades she slugged it out with rival Louella Parsons, establishing the item usage firmly in the American consciousness.

It’s been a fairly racy career for a word with such sedate origins. Item, Latin for “thus, likewise,” was borrowed into English around 1400 for use (as an adverb) in enumerations. Perhaps the most famous is Olivia’s catalog of her attractions in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”: “Item, two lips indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to them; item, one neck, one chin, and so forth.”

Olivia’s item is not our noun item; she uses the word as she might “first, second, third,” to punctuate her list. But during the 16th century, item had also become a noun, designating the thing being itemized or enumerated. And in the 19th century, journalists adopted the noun item to mean a specimen of information or news. And the 20th-century gossips’ sense seems to be a shorthand version of that; as Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang puts it, “such fashionable individuals provide items for newspaper gossip columnists,” and thus become items themselves.

Romance may not be what it once was, but “romance” remains a key part of the definition of an item, which has made itself useful precisely by suggesting attraction without specifying a degree of intimacy. I did run across a nonsexual usage (or so I assume) on the website Smash Hits, which used the term in a story on President Obama’s “beer summit”: “Professor Henry Louis Gates and Sergeant James Crowley are an item these days,” said the report. A news item, yes; an “item,” no. All the usual sources, from the OED to Urban Dictionary, agree: To be an item, you need that spark. Without it, two people, no matter how famous, are just friends.

. . .

The dating game, part 2: “When did go come to mean say and how did this come about?” asks John Sweney in an e-mail. He doesn’t say so, but it’s often considered an affliction of Modern Youth: “So I go, No way! and he goes, Way! and I go You can’t be serious{hellip}”

But no. Modern youth may enjoy this sort of narration - though I remember it from decades ago - but go for say is a natural evolution, says the OED, from other uses of go to mean sound, found from about 1500 onward: “The bell goes for church,” “his noble heart went pit-a-pat.” (Or, more recently: “Zing went the strings of my heart.”) In the 19th century, the usage was also applied to voices. The OED’s earliest example is from Dickens’s “Pickwick Papers” (1836): “ ‘Yo-yo-yo-yo-yoe,’ went the first boy.”

Today, of course, it’s “often in the historic present,” as the OED notes, and it could be that the use of go for say is more obvious in the present than the past. But do objectors really mind the verb go (would “so I say, no way!” be acceptable?). Or is it the present tense that annoys them (would Dickens’s style - “so I went, no way!” - be OK?) Or is it a combination of sense, tense, and speaker that rubs some the wrong way? If you’re among the irritated, let me know where it itches. But whatever the problem, it’s not about the grammar.

E-mail Jan Freeman at mailtheword@gmail.com. For past columns, go to boston.com/ideas.