Language Corner

Hodgepodge, ladder up, and hurtling over hurdles

September 17, 2018

This column is a “hodgepodge” of items.

First up is “ladder up,” a relatively new verb form. A report of a new “content management platform” said it allowed users to “Organize everything needed to complete the campaign in one place—including all sub-campaigns that ladder up to the broader initiative.” In another publication, a workplace consultant said: “We have a lot of entry-level jobs available but also employers need people they can ladder up, so it’s more than just entry-level.”

Those are two uses of the verb “ladder up.” The first means to refer to a higher level, where components need to relate to the “broader initiative.” In the second usage, “ladder up” means to climb the “career ladder,” a more familiar term.

“Ladder” is mostly used as a noun, so using the adverb “up” accentuates its use as a verb and makes it a little more understandable. Even so, “ladder” has been a verb since late 16th century, the Oxford English Dictionary says, though it kept the literal usage “to scale with a ladder” or “to furnish with a ladder” until the 20th century. Then, “ladder” took on a military usage, to increase or decrease the range of a gun barrage until the target is hit. And, if you’re British, you probably know the verb “ladder” as it applies to a defect in women’s stockings or knit clothing. But this is America, where we call those “runs.”

We haven’t yet found “ladder up” in any dictionaries or usage guides, an indication of how jargony it is. And luckily, most uses in mainstream journalism so far have not been serious: The food editor of The New York Times, Sam Sifton, was probably being ironic when he wrote in July of the post–Labor Day return to work, with “everyone back in hard shoes for those meetings with the senior VPs, the kind that end with resets and pivots, everyone laddering up toward deliverables, iterative releases, the language of woe.” And we hope the writer of a news release was intentionally making a pun in describing the career of a new fire chief by saying that he had “laddered up” to a previous position.

Aside from those, please “ladder down” this usage, so you don’t “lather up” your audience.

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Next, let’s get something straight: You “hurtle” over a “hurdle.” A surprising number of sports reports can’t make up their minds: A high school athlete wins the “300-meter hurtles,” but later stats list the boys and girls “100-mtr hurdles.” An award-winning dog displays her ability on an obstacle course “including hurtles, weave poles, tunnels and A-frames,” but her trainer “runs alongside her to guide her to the next hurdle.” You get the picture.

Though only one letter separates them, they don’t have a lot else in common. “Hurdle” is both a noun and a verb. The first “hurdle” was a temporary or portable fence to enclose sheep or cattle, and came into English about 725, the OED says. That fence, made of horizontal bars, became the racing “hurdle” around 1833. But in between, a “hurdle” was also “a kind of frame or sledge on which traitors used to be drawn through the streets to execution.” Its use as part of the punishment for high treason wasn’t abolished until 1870, the OED says, so there was a potential for a few years of mistaking what kind of “hurdle” one was getting into or over. The verb “hurdle” first appeared around 1600 and was associated with the fencing or the sledge; the form meaning to jump over the “hurdles” waited until the end of the 19th century.

“Hurtle” also has both noun and verb forms. The verb “hurtle” means to move quickly, sometimes with force. It arrived around 1250 with a meaning now considered obsolete: “To strike, dash, or knock (something against something else, or two things together).”

The first “hurtle” noun appeared about the same time as the verb “hurdle,” but meant a swelling on the skin or a variation of “whortle,” itself short for “whortleberry,” usages now considered obsolete, the OED says. Poetic and rhetorical uses of “hurtle” as a noun meant “The action or an act of hurtling; dashing together, collision, conflict; clashing sound.”

We rarely see “hurtle” as a noun, unless it’s misused for “hurdle.” And that happens enough that “hurdle/hurtle” are entered in the eggcorn database.


Finally, “hodgepodge.” It’s not a nonsense word, though it sounds like one. It is derived “hotchpotch,” which was a misrendering of the French word “hochepot,” a dish or stew containing many ingredients. But in some inheritance laws, a “hotchpot” is “the combining of properties into a common lot to ensure equality of division among heirs,” as Merriam-Webster says. So, in theory, when someone dies without a will, all of their possessions are gathered and then divided equally among the heirs. But there’s a catch in most places, including the Commonwealth of Virginia: If, as a legal descendant, you got something from the dead person before the person died, you have to throw it back into the “hotchpot” before the whole thing is divided among the heirs.

That, it seems, would create a real “hodgepodge” of bookkeeping, not to mention tensions.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.