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Not on our doorstep?

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  June 12, 2007 05:58 PM

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Browsing the Google News headlines last week, I stumbled onto a new verb -- new to me, that is, though familiar enough in Britain for the past quarter-century.

It came up in a story of sudden death in the English countryside: A lamb belonging to celeb-chef Gordon Ramsay, put out to graze on the grounds of David and Victoria (Posh Spice) Beckham's estate, had been killed and eaten by a mysterious predator.


And Ramsay, who'd been fattening up the lamb for a starring role on his TV menu, wanted to know whodunit, reported the Daily Mail:

One downmarket rag last week suggested Gordon -- pictured [above] with the lamb -- had callously made up the story to publicise his show "The F Word." But the chef has been doorstepping neighbours of the Beckhams in Sawbridgeworth in an effort to track down the wild cat said to be the killer.


A not uncommon word in the British press, it seems. To doorstep someone is to confront him or her on the way out of a building, demanding answers or quotes, or, more generally, to hover about or stalk him.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which dates the transitive doorstep to 1981, quotes the Daily Telegraph (1987): "The incident . . . came amid mounting Royal Family anger with newspaper and freelance photographers ‘doorstepping’ their annual holiday."

There's an intransitive doorstep, meaning "sell or canvass door to door," that's a couple of decades older: "Dr. David Owen, a young St. Thomas' Hospital research graduate, is doorstepping assiduously in politically doubtful streets" (Daily Telegraph, 1966).

But in all those decades, doorstepping has barely made a dent in the American vernacular: Nexis shows only about 20 uses of the "ambush interview" sense since 1981 (plus a few of the "canvass" sense). (These numbers represent doorstepped and doorstepping, but for obvious reasons, I didn't search plain doorstep.)

Why have Americans resisted doorstep, while embracing gone missing and at the end of the day? We know doorsteps, both literal and figurative, whether or not our own homes have them.

Maybe it's because in this country doorsteps rarely lead to our celebrities and notables. Anyone doorsteppable is perched in the hills above Los Angeles or on the shores of Santa Monica, or barricaded in a Manhattan tower or Washington monument, with a straight path from door to taxi, limousine, or helicopter, no doorsteps involved.

But doorstepping is still young, as usages go. It may yet be coming to a newspaper near you.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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