A wordsmith's garden of 'versus'

A preposition that started out being quite confrontational has mellowed over time, to cover not just fights in court or the ring, but just ordinary comparisons

Evan Agostini/AP
Andrew McCarthy (l.) and his wife, Dolores Rice (r.), arrive at the premiere of the movie 'The Five-Year Engagement.'

Do you remember when versus was Latin? And just about the only place you saw it was in names of legal cases, plus or minus the occasional prizefight? (I was going to reinforce my point, Dear Reader, with a YouTube clip of Sonny Liston vs. Floyd Patterson, but that seemed not very Monitoresque, especially when I realized that the sounds of punches landing were the real thing, and not the work of some foley artist. But you get my point.) Versus has mellowed a bit over the centuries.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines versus as a preposition, from Latin, meaning straightforwardly “against.” It is “employed in Law to denote an action by one party against another.” Oxford’s first citation is from 1447-48: “Also the jugement by twene ... John Husset versus John Notte.”

Three centuries-plus later, John Adams wrote his beloved Abigail, “I am engaged in a famous case,– the cause of King, of Scarborough, versus the mob that broke into his house.” The context here is still legal, although the matter was presumably not listed on the docket as “King v. the mob.”

But by 1873, the philosopher Herbert Spencer was using versus to refer not to literal legal adversaries, but to two opposing ideas, albeit with a military metaphor: “The old battle-ground of free will versus necessity.”

More recently, The Atlantic published “a conversation” between Andrew McCarthy and acclaimed travel writer Paul Theroux. It included this from Mr. McCarthy, referring to Mr. Theroux’s latest book:

“Early on, you say: ‘The window of Africa, like the window on a train rushing through the night, is a distorting mirror that partly reflects the viewer’s own face.’ That to me is something the traveler is always wrangling with. What’s real versus what do I want this place to be?”

Many contemporary dictionaries capture this sense of the word, including UrbanDictionary.com, which offers this: “Alternative to something: as opposed to or contrasted with such considerations as money versus job satisfaction.”

People using versus in this less legalistic – or pugilistic – sense may simply be seeking a more concise alternative to the phrase “as compared with.”

Note “compared with.” To compare something to something else is to assert an essential similarity – even when it’s a bit of a leap. “The critics compared her singing to Renée Fleming’s.” Compare with is used to juxtapose “two or more items to illustrate similarities and/or differences,” as the Associated Press Stylebook puts it – as in the “compare and contrast” formula so familiar from essay exams at school.

Versus is rooted in a Latin word for “turning” – the idea being that two adversaries turn to face or confront each other. (And confront involves literally two parties banging their foreheads together.)

That same root shows up in many Latin-derived words in English – to reverse is to “turn back,” for instance. To be versatile, to give another example, is from a Latin word meaning to be “capable of turning with ease to varied subjects or tasks,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. But when the word first came into English, around 1600, it meant “inconstant.” All that jumping around was seen as a bad thing. Within a century that had changed. Nowadays, management gurus point to the ability to put one thing down and turn to another as a sign of personal effectiveness. And now versus is showing some of that same versatility.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.