News your connection to The Boston Globe

Name? Check.

How did a Cold War coinage evolve into today's name-check?

MY EDITOR E-MAILED, not long ago, to report a UFO on his language radar screen. ``Where the heck did the term name-check come from?" he asked. ``And is it my imagination, or is it popping up everywhere?"

As if to answer the question, the word leaped out at me, just hours later, from the pages of the October issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In his tribute to Bill Miller, Frank Sinatra's frequent accompanist, Mark Steyn writes that Miller, ``doesn't even get a credit on the sleeve [of `Duets'], just a tiny name-check deep in the interior of the small print as `Mr. Sinatra's pianist."'

And yes, name-checks are everywhere in the news these days. Bill Clinton gave one to Gordon Brown, the British chancellor of the exchequer, at last week's Labor Party conference in Manchester, and Brown gave several to his boss Tony Blair. Neil Young gave one to Barack Obama, bloggers trade them, and actresses give them to dress designers.

To anyone who follows popular music, this name-check is not news. But for most people, the older sense of name-check--"an official check on a person's credentials, especially for reasons of security or criminal investigation," according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online--is more familiar.

As The New York Times described it in 1953, an FBI ``name-check" involved looking for the names of federal job applicants and suspected traitors on lists the bureau compiled by reading ``every issue of The Daily Worker, and other publications regarded as being communistic," and adding the name of anyone mentioned as a speaker or supporter to the government files.

How did that bureaucratic Cold War coinage evolve into today's casual name-check? First, it took a detour though the heart of capitalism, back in the `70s, when the advertising world borrowed it to mean an acknowledgment of support or sponsorship. As the BBC debated the propriety of such credits, in 1985, one ad man told The Times of London, ``All sponsors are asking for is the odd name-check, which already happens in sports coverage."

The move into music--and the debut of name-check, the verb--also came in that decade. The OED quotes Hi-Fi News in 1987: ``The lyrics betray a hint of literacy, with name-checks for Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger." (Whose lyrics? They don't say.) And that same year, The Los Angeles Times reports that James Brown ``only managed to name-check himself three times within a 90-minute set."

And though the original, commie-chasing name-check was an American invention, the British enthusiastically picked up the new sense (if, indeed, they didn't invent it). It branched out into comedy by 1993, when a London review noted that Victoria Wood ``goes to the same shops as [her fans] do, and buys the same products: Head & Shoulders, Dr Scholl Foot Cream, and Jammy Dodgers [a cookie] are all name-checked with relish."

Still, name-check, like many new usages, ambled along in relative obscurity for years before finally beginning to take off. In my far-from-exhaustive search of news reports on Nexis--limited because ``name check" calls up results like ``name to check" and ``name on the check," so the citations must be hand-sorted--the pop culture name-check doesn't pull ahead of the law-enforcement name-check till 2001.

(It has widened its lead in the past five years, but that's not because the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are snoozing on the job. They're just more likely to talk about name-checks without using the compound word: ``Boston officers check suspects' names and biographical data against immigration data bases," said a recent Globe report of a new screening program.)

What niche is name-check filling? For one, it's a nicer sort of name-dropping; unlike the social climber, a name-checker is usually as famous as the checkee, if not more so. It's a muted version of the shout-out, born circa 1990; a passing mention, a tiny tribute, a pufflet. It's a tip of the hat for a generation that, if it weren't for Turner Classic Movies, might not know what a hat tip is.

And apparently we like it; the New Oxford American, the only desk dictionary on my shelf that lists it, treats name-check as normal English, neither slang nor even informal. From nowheresville to NOAD in three decades: Not bad. Name-check has earned its name-check.

E-mail For four weeks' worth of The Word, visit

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives