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Idiom: Row

Tracing the use of row to describe an argument

Do you use “row” to describe an argument or altercation?

“I overhead Lord Smyth-Watson rowing with Mr. Hartstone in the library.”

You might be surprised to learn this specific usage of the word originated during the Georgian era!

Items in a row originated from Old English (but if referring to a line of plants in a garden or field, then that was also Georgian era), as does rowing a boat, but row in reference to an argument was purely Georgian.

It saw a few different iterations and meanings throughout the Georgian era, from referring to a noisy commotion to a drinking bout. It originated as Cambridge student slang, although no one can pinpoint exactly how it came about. The best possibility seems to be a shortened version of “carousal” or “rousel,” each used to describe noisy commotions or drinking bouts, and each sounding curiously similar to “row”—and since some of the best British words are coined from rhyme, this sounds credible to me!

For the American readers who may be familiar with seeing it in novels but have never heard it in daily life, the pronunciation is row to rhyme with cow rather than row to rhyme with tow.


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