Extreme vetting, or the detailed investigation into a person’s background, has been in the news of late as the term of art used by Donald Trump to describe what needs to happen to refugees seeking to enter the United States. Putting aside the fact that existing investigatory measures are already quite thorough and that Trump does not provide details on how he will change the process to make it extreme—this is a language blog, not an immigration one—the question arises where does the verb to vet come from?
The political verb, surprisingly, comes to us from veterinarian. That word is a seventeenth-century borrowing of the Latin veterinarius. By the mid nineteenth century, the word had been clipped to vet.
By the end of that century, the clipped noun had been verbed, or undergone a functional shift and become a verb. To vet, meaning to submit an animal to a veterinary examination, appears in Annie Thomas’s 1891 novel That Affair:
Beau is shaky in his fore legs. I shall have him vetted before the races.
Within a few years, the word was being applied to any sort of examination. From Rudyard Kipling’s 1904 collection of short stories Traffics and Discoveries:
These are our crowd [...] They’ve been vetted, an’ we’re putting ‘em through their paces.
During World War II the verb came into the national security lexicon, meaning to investigate the trustworthiness and loyalty of an individual. So to vet and vetting have long been in use in government circles, even if the general public has been unaware of their existence until recently.
Oxford English Dictionary Online, second edition, 1989, s. v. vet, v.; vet, n.1; veterinarian, n. and adj.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton