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Chiming In on ‘Chiming With’

Bell copySee if anything strikes your ear as odd in the following sentence: “A fact like this [that Obama plays golf more with an aide than with John Boehner] can seem to chime with the sort of complaints you hear all the time about Obama. …”

This sentence appeared on Page 49 of the January 27 issue of The New Yorker, in David Remnick’s profile of President Obama, “Going the Distance.” It was pointed out to me by the careful language observer Dave Carlyon, who wrote to me about it because the “chiming” sounded off to him.

Like Mr. Carlyon, I don’t think I have ever used chime with this way, although it was clear to both of us immediately what the expression meant in this context. Things that are chiming are probably harmonizing or, metaphorically, agreeing—which is exactly how the fifth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines this use of the verb.

This meaning of the verb chime, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, goes back at least to the late 17th century, which is when the phrasal verb chime in shows up too. The first instance of chime with in the OED occurs in Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge (1841): “There was a freshness in the sound … which chimed exactly with his mood.”

A quick search of Google Books with the Ngram Viewer shows that this Dickens example will get pre-dated when the entry is revised for the new edition of the OED. That is, Google Books turns up earlier instances of the verb, such as this sentence from the London Medical and Surgical Journal (1833): “We ought to make allowance for difference of habits, education, aim, and objects, on the part of those who do not chime with our usages. …” It also shows a surprising uptick in the use of chime with from around 1990 through 2008 (where the chart ends).

Chimewith

Some of these instances are “garbage” in terms of the construction we’re interested in here (e.g., a wind chime chiming with the blowing of the wind, or a bell chiming with clarity), but out of the first 50 instances of chimed with between 1997-2008, 44 of them (according to my reading) employ the meaning “agree, harmonize with.”

In sum, it turns out that Remnick’s use of chime with is neither new nor isolated—and the verb appears to be trending. I did my part in an email to a dean yesterday morning, using the verb for the first time in my own writing to describe how a proposal would, well, chime with a broader university initiative. I could not be more pleased to have been alerted to this meaning of chime with, as it usefully gives me an alternative to jibe with in more formal writing (a point Mr. Carlyon made in his email to me as well).  I was surprised to see that the American Heritage Dictionary editors do not add a usage label such as “informal” to the entry for jibe, as it feels so informal to me (probably due to its phonetic similarity to the informal word jive).

Lots of writers use jibe with though. A search of Google Books with the Ngram Viewer indicates that the infinitive form  jibe with is currently more common than chime with; but writers do not seem to like the forms jibes with or jibed with nearly as much.

Jibewith copy

Where does the verb jibe come from? The OED cites the verb back to 1813 and says, “Origin obscure; perhaps phonetically related to chime.” And how does it define the verb jibe? I quote: “To chime in (with); to be in harmony or accord; to agree.” Go figure.

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