William Safire's On Language column yesterday decided to pay a tiny bit of attention to language. In the midst of a rambling and uninteresting survey of the use of tier regarding presidential candidates he decided to look at the etymology of the word.
Having asked "What’s a tier, anyway, and who arranged its rendezvous with this generation of Americans?" he tries to answer his own question.
Here goes: Tier, from tire, is of Old French origin, the noun meaning “rank, order,” surfacing first in 1569, leading to the verb tirer, “to draw, drag, elongate, pull” (maybe that’s where “to pull rank” comes from).
Then he jumps to its use in ranking those who aspire to political office.
He has obviously referenced the OED for much of this information. Except for that "pull rank" conjecture. Where did that come from? Just because tier might have origins meaning both words? How do we get from tire to pull rank? Other than that, Safire's information is very close to the entry, which reads in part
tier - [Orig. tire, a. F. tire, in OF. (c1210 in Godef.) ‘suite, sequence, range, rank, order’: cf. tire à tire in succession, one after another, f. tirer to draw, elongate.]
And as he has done before the pundit mistakes the OED early entry of 1569 for the date the word surfaced. OED early entries are not to be taken as earliest known usages of a word. It's not just common sense tells us that the words were around before the citations: it's documentation. The OED entries are often just early notable and exemplary usages.
*The noun tire is found in ME meaning a row of fur (1437) or gems ("Ye Ruby suld be ye fyrst in ye secund tir of ye xij stones": Lapidary in Bodleian MS Add. A.106 a1500). And Safire's claim that the noun (which we know surfaced and even made it into print at least 100 years before 1569) led to the verb tirer is hard to understand. The very OED entry that he has mistakenly trusted to provide an earliest date, claims that tire à tire came from the verb tirer.
And the ME verb tiren (f OF tirer) that most closely matches the meaning “to draw, drag, elongate, pull” is usually found in relation to a bird of prey tugging and tearing flesh. A similar verb (of identical form) tiren is a shortened form of atiren from OF atirier meaning to outfit, furnish, equip, prepare or adorn, and has many connections to martial and ceremonial contexts. This second verb seems a likely source of modern tier meaning "A row, rank, range, course" or "A row of guns or gun-ports in a man-of-war or...in a fort." Either ME verb can be found as early as the fourteenth century. They certainly did not come from (or after) the 1569 "surfacing" of the noun.
Of course this much searching would have led Safire to make a connection with attire which certainly would have confused the surety of his findings and forced him to talk about an interesting tho unclear etymology. And Safire seems to enjoy stopping short of good (or any) scholarship, and ignoring it when he finds it.
*ME dates and citations from the excellent Middle English Dictionary.