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What's the meaning of garnish in this context?

What's the point of a bank account when you're constantly behind on every bill you owe?

Creditors can't garnish what's not on paper.

From Thefreedictionary.com:

Law

a. to serve with notice of proceedings; warn

b. Obsolete to summon to proceedings already in progress

c. to attach (a debt)

Slang

a. to extort money from

Which definition is more appropriate?

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3  
You should probably consider looking at curated reference materials, not merely crowd-sourced ones. –  tchrist Aug 9 '12 at 15:59
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4 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

c. to attach (a debt)

It means to extract payment by appealing to legal authorities. In this context creditors can't get your assets if your assets exist outside the "standard" channels.

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It's referring to attaching the money to a debt, sort of. It's more accurately Wage Garnishment or something similar. From Wikipedia:

Wage garnishment, the most common type of garnishment, is the process of deducting money from an employee's monetary compensation (including salary), sometimes as a result of a court order. Wage garnishments continue until the entire debt is paid or arrangements are made to pay off the debt. Garnishments can be taken for any type of debt...

The quote appears to be discussing money laundering or otherwise hiding money from legal garnishment.

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Neither. This is a term from the field of Law, where it has certain more precise definitions, none of which are related to extortion. Here is the one you are looking for:

to seize (money, especially part of a person’s salary) to settle a debt or claim: the IRS garnished his earnings

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Why include the extensive Law blockquote if it's actually not the correct meaning? –  Alex Feinman Aug 9 '12 at 16:40
    
Such legal proceedings are called 'garnishee proceedings'. –  Barry Brown Aug 15 '12 at 8:35
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This question might be one of those AmE/BrE things. Looking at Collins, I noticed meanings similar to what you found:

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Then, at Macmillan, I noticed:

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But, when I clicked on the toggle for the American definition, it was expanded:

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So, to answer your original question (which definition corresponds to the opening quote?), that would be Definition #2 in Macmillan's American English entry.

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In BrEng, the word is garnishee, both as noun and verb. (Technically it was abolished in the recent reforms, but since the replacement is 'obtain a third party debt order' I suspect garnishee will be used for some time to come). –  TimLymington Aug 10 '12 at 9:50
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