To Garnish vs. To Garnishee

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A reader wonders about the verbs garnish and garnishee:

I have been hearing a radio commercial that mentions how the IRS can “garnish one’s wages.”  I always thought garnish referred to decorating food or something, but when I looked this up online, apparently garnishee is the word that has fallen out of use, and garnish in reference to wages is correct. Can you tell me if this is in fact the case?

Both words are used in the sense of taking money owed to a creditor from a person’s wages. Garnish has seniority; the verb garnishee began as a noun derived from the verb to garnish. The noun and verb relating to decorating food come from the same source.

Old French verb garnir meant “to fortify, to defend, to provide.” The earliest example of garnish, meaning “provide or furnish a place with a means of defense,” is dated c.1400.

Another 15th century meaning of garnish was “to fit out with anything that adorns or beautifies.” By the 17th century, garnish was used in the context of decorating servings of food.

Another meaning of of garnir was “to warn.” This sense survives in the legal term garnish: “to obtain a court order directing a party holding funds (such as a bank) or about to pay wages (such as an employer) to an alleged debtor to set that money aside until the court determines (decides) how much the debtor owes to the creditor.”

The noun garnishee is a legal term meaning “a person or entity, quite often a bank or employer, which receives a court order not to release funds held for or owed to a customer or employee, pending further order of the court.” The earliest OED citation for garnishee used as a verb is from a US newspaper dated 1896.

Although the use of garnishee as a verb has declined, the noun remains a common legal term.

In modern usage, wages, as well as salads, are garnished.

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7 thoughts on “To Garnish vs. To Garnishee”

  1. Hmmm, I recognize this topic LOL…
    So my question is, in legal/financial terms (related to garnishing one’s wages), would it be correct to say that the IRS is the garnisher and the powerless human is the garnishee?

  2. @thebluebird: Only if the wages are being confiscated as the result of a judgment for back-owed taxes where the IRS is the judgment creditor and the powerless person is the judgment debtor. The garnishee in that case is the person’s employer or bank, not the IRS or the debtor. Garnisher is not a legal term as far as I am aware. You simply have a debtor, a creditor, and a garnishee who is the 3rd party charged with garnishing. In the case of normal, unadjudicated payment of tax liability there is no garnishee — just the taxpayer (aka The Victim) and the IRS (aka The Extorter.) When a garnisher enters the picture, he is aka The Bagman.

  3. Maeve,

    I once sent email to my second-level manager, thanking her for a requested favor. She managed over 200 professionals, was overworked, and I hoped it was an inconvenience. But my fumble fingers missed typed it and the spell checker change it to: “I hope this hasn’t cause you any incontinence.”

  4. @Maeve: Maybe he didn’t really like his manager and only asked the favor to annoy her and overwork her further LOL

  5. My high school English teacher (1959-1960) was very strict when it came to correct usage, and the difference between garnish/garnishee was one of the strongest of her teachings. I was an “A” student in her class and believed in and learned to a “T” what she taught. Garnish/garnishee really gets my goat when, in my mind, it gets used as either/or. The two are NOT either/or. A garnish is an adornment for food and a garnishee is a payment for a debt that is taken without permission from a monetary source. Period!
    Call me outdated. It is what I believe. My thanks to Mrs. G for helping me become very aware, to this day, of proper usage and how necessary correct usage is to effective communication. Changing what she taught me and others is just a cover-up for not using our English language correctly, and doing whatever it takes to get away with the infraction. But I guess it’s majority rules; just another cop-out. Judging by the way so many of the rules of proper English have been changed, all of us who regard as right and true English usage are obviously a dying breed.

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