Vet, Vetted, Vetting

By Maeve Maddox

The verb vet, “investigate someone’s suitability for a job,” took the American media by storm during the presidential campaign of 2008. Vet was Number Two on Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year list that year. (Bailout was Number One.)

Although the word has been in American dictionaries for close to 100 years, few US speakers seem to have heard of it before 2008. Some forum participants continue to puzzle over it:

The past presidential election is the first time I heard the term “vet” or “vetting a candidate.” What does it mean? (2012)

Honestly, I had never heard the word before until today. (2013)

Here are some examples of the word’s current use on the Web:

Hollywood’s medical storylines vetted by those who know

10 Steps for Vetting Unknown Internet Sources

The Garda Central Vetting Unit (GCVU) provides the only official vetting service in the Republic of Ireland.

While it is general practice for most employers to call references and confirm previous employers, vetting an employee delves a little deeper into the applicant’s background.

Some speakers–apparently lacking access to a dictionary–speculate that the verb vet may derive from veteran or veto:

Coming from the word veteran maybe?

From Latin veto (“to prohibit”), referring to the practice of having an opportunity to veto a decision before it is finalized.

Wrong.

The verb “to vet” is derived from the noun veterinarian. It originated as a term meaning, “to submit an animal to examination or treatment by a veterinary surgeon.” The earliest citation in the OED illustrates the word in the context of horse racing:

1891: Beau is shaky in his fore legs. I shall have him vetted before the races.

By 1904, the term had spread to general usage with this meaning:

to examine carefully and critically for deficiencies or errors; specifically, to investigate the suitability of (a person) for a post that requires loyalty and trustworthiness.

As for veteran and veto, the English word veteran comes from a Latin word for old. “Old soldiers,” for example, were called veterani. Veto translates as “I forbid,” a declaration spoken by Roman tribunes of the people when they wished to oppose measures of the Senate or actions of the magistrates.

The Latin source word for veterinary and veterinarian is veterinus: “a beast of burden.” Veterinus may have been a contracted form of vehiterinus, a word related to the verb vehere, “to carry or convey.” A beast of burden carries things. Veterinarians care for beasts of burden.

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5 Responses to “Vet, Vetted, Vetting”

  • Bill

    My guess would be that those who aren’t familiar with the word are either young or don’t follow presidential campaigns. The word always crops up during those. It was particularly in use in 2008 in reference to the lack of vetting John McCain’s election staff did on Sarah Palin, something which he has rued ever since.

  • venqax

    The first time I recall hearing the word was back in the late 80s or early 90s in the context of being investigated for security clearances. Vetting was something the FBI usually did, though agencies like the CIA did their own vetting. It was in the CIA context that I first heard it.

  • Dale A Wood

    Yes, “vetting” has been used as a word for the security process for decades – especially in the fields of nuclear weapons, electronic intelligence gathering (e.g. NSA, CIA, DIA), congressional staff members, presidential staff members, Cabinet members, and certain levels of military and naval officers.
    A good term to know is SCI = Sensitive Confidential Information (access to).
    That one takes lots of vetting to get.
    DAW

  • Cliff Douglas

    I first encountered vet as a verb in British spy novels. (Probably by John le Carré.) I always considered it a British usage even as it worked its way into American English. The New Oxford American Dictionary on my Mac identifies the verb as a British usage.

  • ApK

    I, too, first encountered the word in regard to the British Intelligence community. I distinctly remember reading “Spy Catcher”, the autobiography of a former MI-5 official, some decades ago, and wondering about the word. Interesting etymologies in this article!

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