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The New ‘Ding’

dinged car

Is this car dinged? It can depend on your dictionary.

In 2013 I wrote a post here on Lingua Franca titled “Dinging for ‘Grammatical Errors,’” and while I put a lot of thought into the argument, I didn’t put a lot of thought into the use of the verb ding. For me, it was a familiar way to describe the act of docking points or reducing the overall score of something.

It never occurred to me to look up the verb ding in a standard dictionary — and if I had, I wonder if I would have kept the word in the title. It might have made me wonder if enough Lingua Franca readers would share my sense of what ding means. You see, if you look up ding in the online version of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language or The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, you won’t find this meaning of the word.

There are two entries for ding as a verb in both dictionaries. The first is the one I am not interested in here: ding meaning “to ring,” as in ding dong. The second one is about what can happen to your car. Merriam-Webster defines the verb this way: “to cause minor surface damage to.” American Heritage has three definitions for the transitive verb: (1) “to dent or nick”; (2) “to hit or strike: was dinged on the head by a ball”; (3) “Slang To shoot, especially with a gun.”

Interestingly, if you look up this ding in the Oxford English Dictionary Online, you can’t even find the meaning “to dent” or “to cause minor surface damage to.” The verb first shows up in English around 1300 and has a much stronger meaning: “to deal heavy blows” or “to hammer.” The verb is a violent one through the 19th century, such that a dinged car (once there were cars) would more likely have been totaled, not dented. The OED entry for ding was first published in 1896 and has not yet been updated. Merriam-Webster dates the weakening of ding to denting back to the 1960s.

None of these definitions, however, captures the dinging we seem to be doing now. Sometimes when we ding someone or something, we are criticizing, perhaps taking the person or the thing down a notch (denting their reputation?). Here are just three examples from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA):

“But what do you make of Hillary Clinton being dinged by some people for not using that phrase?” (NPR, 2015)

“Today the problem is overnutrition, but a school lunch lady trying to prepare healthful fresh food is apt to get dinged by U.S.D.A. inspectors for failing to serve enough calories.” (The New York Times, 2007)

“Some [testers] dinged it [the ski] for a measure of shakiness at high speeds.” (Skiing, 2014)

That third example suggests an overall score being lowered. We see something similar when people refer to credit scores getting dinged (which would mean it got dented, metaphorically, but not totaled) — or an essay grade being lowered due to “grammatical errors.” There is at least one example in COCA in which a jaywalking fine is described as being “dinged a few bucks.” In informal usage, dinging can also involve firing someone or kicking them out of an organization. The third edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary has recognized at least some of these new meanings, adding “criticize, injure, or penalize (someone)” to its entry for ding, after the definitions “dent” and “hit (someone), esp. on the head.”

So much language change happens below the radar. I feel like I have been able to bring things down a notch by dinging them my whole life, but it looks like this meaning of ding may be newer than I realized — still knocking on the door to get recognized in at least some standard dictionary definitions.

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