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.

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