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.