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Through the Wringer: Squeezing the Meaning from "Eke"

Sometimes, a photo "ekes out of the printer." Other times, electronics help "to eke out extra mileage" in cars. And in a more familiar usage, a movie "shows how a once-budding folk singer tries to eke out a living."

It's no wonder, then, that most people think "eke out" means to achieve something through effort, to barely get by.

Well it does, now.

But "eke" did not start out that way. It hasn't always carried "out" with it, nor has it always been a verb. It's another lesson in how we change words by using them, as doctors would say, off-label.

"Eke" entered English around the year 700 as an adverb meaning "also, too, moreover; in addition," The Oxford English Dictionary says. A tag attached to a bell rope was a "bell-eke." An "eker" was an augmenter, someone who gave what we might call "added value" to something. Around 1300, if someone started calling you by a diminutive (Jack, for John, for example), that was your "eke-name," or "additional name." That later became corrupted to our "nickname."

As a verb, "eke" showed up around 1200 without appendages, meaning "to increase, add to, lengthen," the OED says, as in "His Majesty … eked others that I had omitted." "Eke" first picked up "out" around 1600, in the context of supplementing something, or supplying the deficiencies of something. No effort required. But, the OED says, "eke out" especially meant to make something last, "by additions, by partial use of a substitute, or by economy." That sure sounds like squeezing every last drop from it.

Nevertheless, for some time, using "eke out" to mean "squeezing by" was considered nonstandard English. "Eke" meant just adding; whether it was through thrift or largess was irrelevant. Being stingy with your sugar when sugar was rare would be "eking out" your sugar; begging for it a spoonful at a time from your neighbor would not be "eking out" a sugar high. Subtle, but important.

As for the need for "out," "eke out" has become a couple, what's called a "phrasal verb," one that takes more than one word to act out. With "out" being a preposition, though, and with the predilection of people to drop prepositions with verbs (as in "wait tables" or "babysit kids"), "eke" has been standing alone a fair bit.

"Eke" can go out alone with no shame. The Scottish, in particular, use "eke" to mean "repair by adding material." So if you drop "out" and "eke" a victory of some kind, it sure sounds as if you're "squeaking by," or you "fought" to get there, right?

Not so fast.

Bryan A. Garner, he of the blessed Garner's Modern American Usage, sees the nightmare of "eke" standing alone and does not like it. "Unfortunately," he says, "sportswriters have come to use eke without its inseparable companion out, as if it meant something like squeak," as in a team that "eked [read squeaked? fought?] back into the Top 25." Hmph.

Grudgingly, it seems, Garner lists "eke" "misused for squeak or fight" at Stage 3 of his five-stage Language-Change Index, at the "amateur" stage, whereas "eke out" to mean "get by with great difficulty" has gone pro at Stage 5, or fully acceptable.

Perhaps he just needs to wait a few hundred more years.

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.