Q A word that I hear all the time and that always gets on my nerves is “opt.” People are always “opting” to do one thing or another. Why can’t they just “choose” instead? It seems pretty obvious that “opt” must be related in some way to “option,” but where exactly did this irritating little verb come from and how did it get so popular? – B.T., Franconia, N.H.

A: You may not like “opt,” but once you’ve heard the story of its origins, you’ll have to admit that it has an interesting background.

The region of Alsace-Lorraine in what is now northeastern France has changed hands many times down through the centuries. One such change occurred in 1871, when the Treaty of Frankfurt ending the Franco-Prussian War stipulated that Alsace-Lorraine be ceded by France to Germany. (The French got it back again after World War I, then lost and regained it one more time during World War II.)

Because many of the inhabitants of Alsace-Lorraine remained loyal to France, they were given a choice: they could stay in Alsace-Lorraine as German citizens or they could emigrate to France. It was apparently this opportunity to choose that gave us the verb “opt,” derived from the French “opter,” “to choose.” The earliest uses of “opt” in English had to do specifically with Alsace-Lorraine, for example, in George Sala’s “Paris Herself Again” (1879): “He was supposed to be a native of Alsace-Lorraine, who had ‘opted’ to become a French subject.”

From such usage “opt” acquired the meaning “to make a choice of citizenship,” which remained its principal sense until the 1950s, when it came into more common use in the general sense “to choose.” The surge in its popularity following World War II seems to have begun through widespread use of its original sense to describe the decisions about citizenship and forms of government being made by individuals and nations at that time.

Q A while back I read a John Le Carre novel that contained a word I’d never encountered before. The word was “quisling” and in the novel it said that “burning paper was a Quisling act.” Is there a verb “to quisle”? If so, I can’t find it. – S.J., Springfield, Ill.

A: You’ll never find “quisling” by looking for “quisle.” “Quisling” is not the present participle of a verb, but rather a proper name. It is a name used in much the same way we use “Benedict Arnold” to mean “a traitor,” and it comes from the name of a Nazi collaborator during World War II, Vidkun Quisling.

Quisling was a Norwegian army officer and politician. He served as Norway’s minister of defense from 1931 to 1933, but resigned to found a fascist political party called The National Union whose platform called for the suppression of Communism and unionism.

He met with Adolf Hitler in December 1939, successfully urging the Germans to occupy Norway. The Germans invaded in April, and Quisling proclaimed himself head of the government.

Widely and bitterly opposed, he lasted only a week in this position. He continued to serve in the occupational government, however, and in 1942 was named “minister president” by the German authorities.

Quisling’s attempts to convert Norway to National Socialism aroused fervent opposition on the part of the Norwegian people. After the liberation of Norway in 1945, Quisling was found guilty of treason and other crimes (he was held responsible for the deaths of nearly 1,000 Jews) and was executed. His name has been used synonymously with “traitor” since 1940.

This column was prepared by the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. Readers may send questions to Merriam-Webster’s Wordwatch, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal St., Springfield, MA 01102.


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