In a word: spree

December 23, 2013|By John McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word: 


You may face temptations this week and next to go on a little spree, perhaps of shopping, perhaps of drinking, perhaps of overeating. A spree is a burst of indulgence or activity, or perhaps a jolly outing.

Because of those senses, editors at The Sun have tended to shun the terms crime spree or shooting spree, on the ground that shooting people ought not to be treated like a binge. 

But a recent post at Language Log goes into the etymology of the word as recorded in the American Heritage Dictionary, which shows more complex origins. It appears to descend from the Scots spreath, for "cattle raid." The Scottish and Irish Gaelic spreidh can mean "cattle" or "booty." 

This is speculative, and Victor Mair, author of the Language Log article, points out that the Oxford English Dictionary and the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language lean toward the "innocent merriment" gloss. 

Still, it is tempting to think that when we write about a "crime spree," we may be echoing something out of the misty Gaelic past.

In etymology, you pays your money and you takes your chances. 

Example: From Cronkite News, November 15, 2011: "A Tucson resident who was hailed as a hero in the Jan. 8 shooting spree that killed six people and seriously injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, called on Senate lawmakers Tuesday to pass stricter gun laws."

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