Posts Tagged ‘The Blogfinger Grammarian’

By Charles Layton

Happy new year, word wonks.

I’m thinking that our linguistic new year’s resolution should be about clichés. I hate clichés like sin. So in 2013 I resolve to avoid them like the plague. Avoiding clichés is going to be Job One. It’s going to be a game changer. A no-brainer. That’s what I’m talkin’ about!

Seriously, was this past year more cliché-packed than most? Especially in politics? It seemed so.

What if, in the coming year, our politicos and their enablers and hirelings and flacks made a real effort not to talk about (to pick one example) “kicking the can down the road.” That used to be an extremely apt image – much better than the older expression, “punt.” But after you’ve heard it three or four times a day it loses its magic.

Many clichés got to be clichés because they were magical — originally. When I first heard someone talk about “throwing out the baby with the bath water,” I was in wonderment at the pure genius of that. Now, through repetition, the image has lost impact. So it goes. (I’m always reminded of the man who read Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the first time and complained that it was full of clichés.)

Anyway, I’m for a bipartisan agreement that we stop referring to roads with cans in them. And that we forego the use of the word “spin” in its political sense; it’s making people dizzy. Also, no more references to a “fiscal cliff.” And no more accusing people of “politics as usual.” That trite little phrase that has come to mean both anything and nothing. In fact, accusing someone of politics as usual has itself become politics as usual.

I’d also ask Christian conservatives to stop accusing secular liberals of waging a “war on Christmas” – a phrase as seasonally predictable as an Andy Williams song — and that liberals, in return, stop calling out conservatives over “the war on women.” Discarding the “war on” shorthand might allow both groups to frame their complaints more precisely.

The “war on” motif began in the 60s, to my recollection, when Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. It sounded pretty cool back then – until the war on poverty got displaced by a real war in Vietnam. But in the 70s Nixon tried to have a war on cancer. And then came the war on drugs, which has had a longer run than Cats. Bush launched a war on terror. More recently, according to the New York newspapers, Mayor Bloomberg has had both a “war on guns” and a “war on soda.” In between, we’ve had various “culture wars” along with wars on crime, inflation, obesity, germs – everything except a war on wars. I read a headline the other day that said: “Putin Declares War on Orphans.” Thus does a once-vigorous metaphor become shriveled and exhausted, and thus do its users betray their linguistic laziness. “War on” has become a headline writer’s cute little joke.

Sports produces even more clichés than government and politics. It’s amazing how long baseball announcers have been yelling, “It’s outta here!”

But basic sports terms have a way of transmogrifying into political clichés. Horse race terms predominate during election campaigns, when candidates try to “break out of the pack” and become “front runners.” Sometimes they run “neck and neck” or even have a “photo finish.”

Just to shock us out of our cataleptic boredom, I would challenge the commentators to take up another sport. How about cricket? Wouldn’t it be great if they started announcing that Obama had served up a zooter to Congress, or that the New Jersey Democrats had denounced Christie for bowling grubbers and beamers. I’d buy tickets to that.

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The Grammarian befriending a pachyderm. Photo by Mary Walton

By Charles Layton

Today’s word is “ramify,” meaning to divide into branches, from the Latin ramus (branch). That’s what it says on one of my favorite websites, wordsmith.org.

This website is run by Anu Garg, a writer and computer consultant who lives beside a lake somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Each day he features a different word, for which he provides its definition and some interesting commentary.

Also, he throws in a daily random quote, which he calls “A thought for today.” This morning’s thought, for instance, was from James Baldwin: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

This little website claims nearly a million linguaphile (i.e., word nerd) subscribers in at least 200 countries. It’s been up and running since 1994. It’s been written up in the New York Times and elsewhere.

Mr. Garg has become an established authority. People write in with questions, such as the following:

From Mary at worldbank.org:

I  was wondering if you might be able to help me. I have recently started to date a special man. The problem is that I am uncomfortable calling him my “boyfriend” because he isn’t a boy (and I’ve always hated that word anyway; it’s sophomoric). I looked up “boyfriend” in Microsoft Word’s thesaurus but the alternatives are equally unacceptable. Please, please, please, is there a word out there that indicates a close, romantic relationship without being too sappy (or too explicit)? If you can suggest one, I would be forever grateful!

Here is Garg’s answer:

Dear Mary,

I suggest “priya” (pronounced PRI-ya). This unisex word comes from Sanskrit, isn’t sappy, and conveys that unique sense of affection which forms the essense of a relationship.

You can see the level this guy is operating on.

I usually just read the word of the day and then move on, but this morning, having time to kill, I started following some of the comment strings in this website’s extensively rich archives.

I stumbled on a great conversation about the difference between a rug and a carpet. It began with this, from a reader: I tend to think of a carpet as covering more space than a rug. But the dictionaries give them as synonyms.

Then Fiberbabe posted this response: Yeah, I think of carpet as having that wall-to-wall quality, whereas a rug just covers a portion of the floor … throw rug, area rug, mug rug 🙂 … no one I know would ever say “throw carpet.”

But then Jheem filed this dissenting opinion: If a carpet goes from wall to wall, why would anybody talk about wall-to-wall carpeting? Or an area rug? Also, there used to be talk about a flying carpet, not a flying rug. You get called onto the carpet, but have the rug pulled out from under yourself. Carpet is from Latin/Italian and rug is from Scandinavian.

See how educational? Here are a few other things Wordsmith.org taught me today:

  • The expression “ring true” comes from the old practice of judging a coin to be genuine or fake by the sound it gives when tapped. That practice became obsolete when coins stopped being made of precious metals, but the idiom lives on.
  • All elephants are pachyderms, but not all pachyderms are elephants; the rhinoceros and hippopotamus have also been classified as such. The word means thick-skinned, and you may apply it as well to a thick-skinned, insensitive, stolid person. (Which seems unfair to something as fundamentally inoffensive as an elephant.)
  • The disease we call cancer comes from the Greek word for “crab” because the ancient physician Galen thought the spreading lesions of a malignant tumor looked like crab’s claws.
  • The word apocalypse, meaning revelation, comes from the Greek word meaning to uncover. But — surprise! — so does the word eucalyptus. It literally means “well-covered.” (Wondering whether the word calypso might also be related, I looked it up elsewhere online. Alas, no connection whatsoever.)

I also ran across a quotation in which one of O. Henry’s characters misunderstands the term solar plexus. “‘His arm,’ said Chad, ‘is harder’n a diamond. He interduced me to what he called a shore-perpluxus punch and ’twas like being kicked twice by a mustang.”

And, finally, let’s conclude with this down-to-earth observation on language by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I would never use a long word where a short one would answer the purpose. I know there are professors in this country who ‘ligate’ arteries. Other surgeons only tie them, and it stops the bleeding just as well.”

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By Charles Layton, Blogfinger staff.  Re-posted from 2012.  Still relevant.

I eastwooded today. It was totes cray FOMO. But, really, YOLO, right?

Oh, I forgot, I’m writing for Blogfinger. Gotta switch to the king’s English here.

Today we’re going to travel into the turbulent world of in-crowd slang. Please stow your baggage securely in the overhead compartment and make sure your tray is in the upright position.

For our purposes, an “in-crowd” is any group of people that wishes to distinguish itself from the likes of you. To do this, an in-crowd will develop its own language. If you’ve ever been in the armed services, you know what I’m talking about. The sergeants used to tell us recruits there were three ways to do a thing: the right way, the wrong way and the Army way. And God knows the Army has its own way of speaking. Ten hut!

African Americans developed a way of speaking that was intended to be private from whites. This dates from slavery. It obviously served a needed purpose. And the black community has been a fertile source of language engineering ever since.

Jazz musicians have always had a special way of speaking. Back in the day, one of my favorite jazz-musician/hipster turns of phrase was the playful attachment of the suffix “ville” to almost any word. Instead of being weird, something would be weirdsville. Instead of being cool, it would be coolsville.

In my wandering youth – in the very early 60s — I once found myself riding on a train with a young musician who was just full of jazzy slang. He was almost a caricature of the type; he actually said “Daddy-oh.” When our train passed through the village of Hicksville, on Long Island, he asked me, “Hey, man, where are we?”

I said, “We’re in Hicksville.”

He said, “I know, man, but what’s the name of the place.”


Criminals and gangsters have always constituted the quintessential in-crowd. In the 1930s, the movies acquainted the general public with such colorful gangster lingo as “stool pigeon” (or “stoolie”), referring to someone who was a “snitch” or a “rat” – someone who “squealed” or “sang” to the cops and therefore needed to be “rubbed out.” I seem to remember Edward G. Robinson uttering the wonderful phrase, “My rod will speak,” meaning he was going to shoot some people.

Drug users have given us a ton of slang terms, such as “horse” for heroin and “pot” and “grass” for marijuana. You know those terms. But do you know what an “Alice B. Toklas” is? It’s a marijuana brownie, named for the woman who was the partner of the writer Gertrude Stein. (It may not be a coincidence that a puff of marijuana is sometimes called a “toke.”)

And then, of course, we have teenagers and pre-teenagers who use slang to create a separate place for themselves in the world, a distinct culture, a wall between themselves and adults. That’s why a teenager says “It’s totes cray” instead of  “It’s totally crazy.”

A simple and common way to alter language is to cut off the ends off words. It’s why “radical” became “rad” some years ago, and why “reverend” got shortened to “rev.” Molly Ivins, the late columnist, used to call the Texas legislature “the Lege.” Now it’s the common term down there. In Washington these days, people call the Oval Office simply “the Oval.” It’s kind of fun to do this. The military raised word shortening to an art. Psychological operations became “psy ops.” Signals intelligence became “sigint.”

Connie Eble, an English professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been collecting college slang since 1972 and writing about it. College is a Petri dish for new slang. In the past, it has given us such expressions as “cut class,” “cram” and “rocks for jocks.” A “turkey dump” is when a college student returns home at Thanksgiving to dump his or her hometown sweetheart. “Dormcest” is hooking up with someone who lives in your dorm.

Eble’s list now includes two popular new terms that are acronyms: FOMO, which means “fear of missing out,” and YOLO, which means “you only live once.” These terms seem to have drifted downward into high school, junior high school and even lower. A kid who isn’t on Facebook can develop FOMO. Such a kid might say, “I’m having a FOMO attack,” converting the word into an adjective.

YOLO is even more interesting. It became popular this year after the rapper Drake included it in a song. “YOLO, and we ‘bout it every day, every day, every day.”

YOLO is what you say when a friend suggests parking in an illegal spot. People also speak of a boozy night on the town as YOLO-ing – “I went YOLO-ing last night.”

It’s not just a word, it’s a philosophy. This past spring a streaker – wearing nothing but a pair of sneakers – sprinted across the field at a Boston Red Sox game with YOLO written across his chest.

An example of eastwooding

By the way, we witnessed the birth of a brand new word just last week: “eastwooding,” named for the actor Clint Eastwood. To “eastwood” is to have a conversation with a chair, or to post a picture of yourself on the Internet in conversation with a chair. This has been happening on both left-wing and right-wing websites in recent days. It’s an activity all of America can enjoy, regardless of party affiliation.

Keep this thing out of your sister’s bedroom.

I think my favorite new slang word – phrase, actually – is “honey badger.” The honey badger is an animal native to Africa and Asia. It is known for its fearlessness and tenacity. According to Internet legend, honey badgers steal food from bigger animals, such as leopards; they attack and eat cobras, and they break into bee hives and eat the larvae even while getting stung thousands of times. Urban Dictionary states that “when they kill something they crack open their victim’s skull with their teeth and eat their brain and digest their thoughts.” It is even claimed that a honey badger will climb into bed with your sister and impregnate her while she sleeps.

Anyway, a guy named Randall made a YouTube video about the honey badger. It was crude, it was hilarious, and it went super-viral. Randall then, in 2011, published a book called Honey Badger Don’t Care. And now, voila!, “honey badger” has entered our language, and probably other languages, with several different meanings. A person might say, “I hate that girl; she’s such a honey badger.” The term also has a rather specific sexual definition, which Blogfinger propriety forbids me to reveal. But, actually, its meaning seems to be migrating in several directions, and if it should survive long-term, it’s unclear what it will finally come to mean.

Such is the nature of language. It is adaptive, supple, inventive and thoroughly unpredictable. In other words, it’s totes cray.

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By Charles Layton

I just heard the news that some competitors in the Olympic Games got caught trying to “throw” their badminton matches. But you know what?, I don’t care. I just don’t have Olympics fever any more.

Maybe it’s because I’m a language maven. A word wrangler. A connoisseur des mot. And when folks like me feel a craving for competitive thrills, we don’t necessarily turn to archery or weightlifting or women’s Group C beach volleyball. We would just as soon turn to the American Dialect Society’s annual Word of the Year contest. Talk about an adrenaline rush!

For the past 22 years, the ADS has been choosing not only the major-category winner — the word of the year itself — but also the winners in several sub-categories: “most useful” word, “most creative” word, “most unnecessary” word, “most outrageous” word, “most euphemistic” word, and the twin categories  “most likely to succeed” and “least likely to succeed.”

They also choose, every 10 years, a “word of the decade.” For the decade of 2000-2009 that word was google as a verb. It’s a good choice, one of those brand names like Kleenex that has come to denote something generic, beyond itself.

The word of the decade for the 1990s was web, which certainly seems to have shown staying power. The word of the entire 20th century was jazz (I can’t think of a better one, can you?) and the word of the millennium was “she” (which I’m not sure I quite understand).

The word of the year for 2009 was tweet, which seems OK, but the word of the year for 2008 was better: bailout.

The top-word choices are often based on highly serious, even world-shaking events. The word for 2007 was subprime. Even more of a downer was the one for 2002, WMD or weapons of mass destruction. But occasionally something charming pops out on top. The best word winner for 2006 was the verb to pluto or to be plutoed, meaning to be demoted or devalued.

The best word of 1998 was not a word at all but a prefix — e — as in email or e-commerce. It’s the only time a single letter of the alphabet has won word of the year.

Reading over these lists affirms what an impact the Internet and its ancillary devices have had on our life and culture. The word of the year for 2010 was app. Of course!

One of the more interesting categories is “most likely to succeed.” Looking back over the years one finds some stellar names in this category. For 1999 the word most likely to succeed was dot-com. Good choice. For 2001 the word of the year and the word most likely to succeed were one and the same: 9-11. Most likely to succeed in 2002 was blog. In 1991 it was rollerblade.

But lest you think these people at the ADS are infallible genius-prophets, it pains me to report that they’ve produced the occasional clunker. The word most likely to succeed in 2000 was muggle, the Harry Potter term for a non-wizard, which came to mean a mundane, unimaginative person. I don’t hear that much on the streets of Ocean Grove, do you? Most likely to succeed in 2005 was “sudoku” — referring to a Japanese number puzzle.

The category that’s been the most fun over the years is “most creative” word. This list includes, in 2007, the word googlegänger, meaning a person with your name who shows up when you google yourself. In 2003, it was freegan, someone who eats only free food. In 1997 it was prairie dogging, which means popping one’s head above an office cubicle to see what’s going on.

The most creative in 2010 was judged to be “prehab,” meaning preemptive enrollment in a rehab facility to head off a potential relapse. But the one I would have voted for is the runner-up: the word sauce as an adjectival suffix, as in awesome-sauce meaning great or lame-sauce meaning stupid. I also like the term fat-finger, a verb that means to mistype, as by accidentally striking more than one key on a keyboard/pad.

Here’s the latest list — chosen for the year 2011. Play the Olympic theme in your head as you read these, and imagine the words standing on podiums with medals around their necks:

Word of the yearoccupy.

Must usefulhumblebrag, an expression of false humility, especially by celebrities on Twitter.

Most creativeMellencamp, a noun meaning a woman who has aged out of being a “cougar” (after John Cougar Mellencamp). That may be OK, but I’m more fond of the runner-up, which was “bunga bunga,” a name for the sex parties involving former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Most unnecessary bi-winning, a term used by the TV star Charlie Sheen to describe himself, pridefully dismissing accusations that he was bipolar. (Runner-up was amazeballs, which is just a slangy variant of the word “amazing.”)

Most euphemisticjob creator, referring to a member of the top one-percent of money makers.

Most likely to succeedcloud, referring to the online space for data processing and storage.

Least likely to succeed brony, meaning an adult male fan of the “My Little Pony” cartoon franchise.

In conclusion, if you’re really into this stuff like I am, you can see all of the complete lists, going back to 1990, by clicking here.  It’s a walk down memory lane, and it affords a unique perspective on America’s recent history. It’s both entertaining and educational. Can you really say that about the Olympics?

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By Charles Layton

I think I first started hearing the word gay in the very early 1960s.

Until then, the only neutral, non-insulting word I knew was homosexual, and that wasn’t completely non-insulting, especially in its shortened form, homo. Since homosexual was so dadgum polysyllabic, I reluctantly converted to saying gay.

Reluctantly, because the word seemed a misnomer. Gay had traditionally meant happy and exuberant. In my experience homosexuals weren’t any happier than straight people. Exuberant some of them were, but that emphasized a caricature – the flaming, lisping, San Francisco Halloween party aspect. Whereas most of the gay people I actually knew (and I didn’t know all that many) were rather serious types.

Anyway, gay really caught on. Within a few years it was impossible to sing “don we now our gay apparel” at Christmas time without thinking of the double entendre. Therefore, in some versions of “Deck the Halls” that line has now been changed to “Fill the mead-cup, drain the barrel.” If you look up gay in a dictionary these days, you’ll find that the first definition given is the homosexual one.

I don’t recall hearing the phrase “the gay and lesbian community” back then. The relationship between gay men and lesbians was often tense, partly because many lesbian feminists were aggrieved toward male power regardless of sexual orientation.

But in recent years the genders have formed a closer union because they share a common desire for equality under the law. And this is where the nomenclature gets complicated.

First there was the gay and lesbian community. Then the issue of bisexuals arose, and that group was included. “LGB” became the shorthand term for lesbian, gay and bisexual.

Sometime in the 1990s the term “LGBT” began to appear – the T standing for transgender, which pertains more to gender identity than sexual preference.

I found these initials hard to remember at first. I still have to pause and think before I say LGBT. But just as I’m starting to master this, along comes another component: people who are intersexual. The word intersex is used in place of the older term hermaphrodite.  So now we sometimes see references to “the LGBTI community.”

But that’s not all. If you Google “LGBTIQ” you will find that this term stands for lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/intersexed/questioning. And if you add “asexuals” to the list, you get LGBTQIA.

This is at least a couple of bridges too far.

Partly, it’s just an effort to make everyone feel at home. According to an article on the “Sexual Orientation and the Law Blog,” this massing of initials — a rainbow coalition, you might say — seeks “to achieve a high degree of political unity among groups with diverse, potentially conflicting legal and policy issues. In principle, LGBTIQ activists wish to respect varied experiences of prejudice and discrimination resulting from non-conformity in terms of sexuality and gender expression. In practice, such activists recognize the strength of numbers and hope to attract all potential participants and supporters into a mostly unified social movement.”

That makes some sense, I suppose, legally and politically, although I’ve never heard of “questioning” people being discriminated against. I’m not sure I know what that designation means.

From a linguistic point of view, I wish we could fall back on gay as the general term. Sometimes we do. When people talk about “gay marriage” they mean same-sex marriage of either gender. When high school or college students form a “Gay-Straight Alliance” it is meant to include lesbians. Using gay in the all-inclusive sense is a simple solution. It’s what most of us do in conversation.

I predict that the alphabet soup approach will eventually die out. In the long run, language tends toward simplicity.

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By Charles Layton

I’ve posed this question before but never received an adequate answer. What do you call a person who lives in Neptune? I’m not originally from here, and I honestly don’t know, but I have some thoughts about it.

I grew up in a part of the country where the suffix “ite” is used a good deal. We Texans have Houstonites and Dallasites and Austinites. “Ite” is sort of our default setting. However, it’s a big state and we have plenty of exceptions. (For some reason, people in Paris, Texas, refuse to refer to themselves as “Parisites.”)


“Neptunite” would be my automatic choice for a Person From Neptune (a PFN) except for the distracting fact that neptunite happens also to be the name of a rare mineral. Like our township, it is named for the Roman god of the sea. Unlike our township, it is mainly found in scattered parts of Asia and North America but not, I believe, in New Jersey. I don’t think a PFN should be called that.

So how about another common suffix, the one we apply to people from Ocean Grove, from New York, from London and from (I believe this is true) Hamburg. The trouble is, “Neptuner” sounds as if it should be spelled Nep-tooner, and as if it ought to designate an old-time cartoon character: Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Petunia Pig. To my ear, it just lacks dignity. Plus, it reminds me of the Looney Tunes theme song, which then sticks in my mind and torments me for days. (“Th-th-that’s all, folks.”)

So if Neptuners doesn’t quite work, we’re stuck with the following options:

Neptunians. — No good. It suggests alien invaders from a giant frozen planet.

Neptunans. —  Something to do with tuna fish? Sounds like it.


Neptunistas? — Well, hey, that has a ring to it. Anybody want to second that?

Ocean Grover

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All y'all


By Charles Layton

The plural form of I is we. The plural of he/she/it is they. But the plural form of you is just you.

Spanish changes usted to ustedes to make it plural. Most other European languages also have a separate plural form for “you.” But not English. We’re deprived.

When I joined the Army I’d never been north of the Texas-Oklahoma border, so I’d never heard anyone say youse before. When I got to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, a sergeant got on the company squawk box and bellowed, “I want youse to listen up!” This sounded so ignorant to me that I burst out laughing.

But I shouldn’t have. The sergeant was from Yankeeland, where some people said youse for the very legitimate purpose of specifying the plural. I should have understood that, coming from a part of the country where people said y’all 60 or 80 times a day.

In spite of all formal teachings to the contrary, we-uns in the South have always had this perfectly good, time-tested second-person plural pronoun, and we’ve put it to good use. Regardless of what some people think, y’all is correctly used only as a plural. I agree with the Urban Dictionary when it says, “Only an absolute idiot would use y’all as a singular pronoun.” In the South, when an individual customer enters a hardware store or diner or tractor dealership or bail bond agency, the clerk or hostess or salesperson or bondsman says, “Can I help you?” Not “Can I help y’all.”

Some Yankees get mixed up about this because they’ve heard Southerners say “all of y’all” or “all y’all” or “all a’ y’all,” as if y’all were the singular and all y’all the plural. But that’s wrong. Let me explain.

In my high school, the cheerleaders would exhort us at pep rallies: “ALL Y’ALL YELL!” Which was correct usage. One would not say “all y’all” when addressing two or three people. In that situation, the proper term is “y’all,” the simple plural. “All y’all” is the all-inclusive plural. It comes into play when the group being addressed is so large that one would want to spread one’s arms as a gesture of inclusivity. However, say you’re addressing five people, two of whom are going to the rodeo and three of whom are staying home. You’d say, “Y’all are going” addressing the two “and y’all are staying” addressing the other three. Only if all five were going would you say, “All y’all are going.”

So, you see, Southerners have evolved the usage of this friendly little pronoun to a highly nuanced state of sophistication. The North has nothing to compete with it. Northerners might say “you guys” in one of the above situations — or “youse guys” — but then the masculine guys is forced to apply to people of both sexes. Y’all, being gender neutral, avoids that awkwardness. Plus, y’all has an elegant, easy-to-use possessive form: “That’s none of y’all’s business.” “Where is y’all’s ammunition?” (The possessive of youse is pretty clumsy by comparison.)

Up here in Yankeeland, I almost never use the word y’all (or its more dignified and stately variant, you all), because up here y’all are so confused about it. But last month, when I was in Florida, I found myself reverting to y’all a time or two. And I have to say, it felt comfortable, like meeting a very close friend after a period of separation.

English once had a solid distinction between singular and plural forms. Thou was singular and you plural. But, for some reason, thou dropped out of usage except in formal public prayer and in Amish country. So then you occupied the singular position, doing double duty. When y’all came along, you gave up its original plural spot (in the South, that is) and became just singular. E pluribus unum.

In Yankeeland, you still plays a double role, and an ambiguous one. It doesn’t seem quite right.

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Ocean Grove. July 4, 2013. Paul Goldfinger photo. ©

Ocean Grove. July 4, 2013. Paul Goldfinger photo. ©

By Charles Layton  (Originally posted on BF in 2012)

Are the Democrats democrats? That question arose this week when the leader of the Neptune Democratic Club tried to prevent a group of Ocean Grovers from expressing their opinion at a Club meeting. One of those Grovers said later that the meeting was “undemocratic.”

But here are two other questions: Are Republicans democrats? Are Democrats republicans? While the answer to that first question may be unclear, the answers to the latter two questions are, for the most part, “yes” and “yes.”

What am I talking about?

I’m talking about what the names of our two major parties actually mean. Here’s some history. In the beginning, the United States was non-partisan – that is, it had no political parties. The writers of the Constitution didn’t want parties to take root here, as they had in England. George Washington was not a member of a party while he was President.

But because of a policy split within Washington’s administration, we soon had a Federalist Party (led by Alexander Hamilton) and then a Democratic-Republican Party (led by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson). After the Federalists went into decline, there arose the pro-Andrew Jackson Democrats and the anti-slavery Republicans, and although the policies of those two parties have altered in various ways over time, the names have stuck. But what do those names mean? What did they ever mean?

Well, a republic (notice the lower-case “r”) is a government that’s not a monarchy or a dictatorship, but rather is run by officials elected by the “public.” After the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had completed its work, a group of citizens gathered around Benjamin Franklin and asked him, “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

A democracy (again, small “d”) is technically a government in which all the citizens make public policy. But really, it’s almost always a “representative democracy” rather than a “pure” one, which is to say we elect people to make laws and run things, and if a majority of us don’t like the way they do that, we kick them out. Not much distinction, really, between that and a republic.

In a 1964 convention speech, President Lyndon Johnson, quoting Jefferson, said, “We are all Democrats. We are all Republicans.” But Johnson misquoted Jefferson. What our third President actually said, at his 1801 inauguration, was this: “We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists.” (Federalism refers to a system in which power is shared between a central authority, the “federal” government, and other units within that – states or provinces).

What I say is, we are all republicans, we are all democrats, we are all federalists. But what I also say is, Jefferson and Johnson both had their capitalization wrong; they were referring to republicans small-r, democrats small-d and federalists small-f.

And that is today’s language lesson: when you’re referring to members of the Democratic Party, it’s upper-case D. When you’re referring to “democrats” meaning people who believe in “democracy,” the d is lower case.

Thank you, my fellow federalists.


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By Charles Layton

QUESTION: In a recent story about a photo exhibit, Blogfinger wrote: “Here is a photograph of Geanna’s.” Isn’t this use of an apostrophe S incorrect in combination with the word “of”?

ANSWER: In olden days, when grammar and punctuation rules flowed down from Mt. Olympus to school teachers and thence to the rest of us, this usage was condemned for being superfluous. The possessive in English could be formed in one of two ways, by using “of” — as in “the voice of reason” or “the snows of Kilimanjaro” — or by using an apostrophe S. Using both was like using a double negative (“I don’t have no shoes”). Although the meaning was perfectly clear, putting it that way made one sound like Li’l Abner. (Note to younger readers: Li’l Abner was a character in a newspaper comic strip. A newspaper was … oh, forget it.)

As the gods of Olympus lost their grip, people more and more ignored this injunction against the double possessive. Now, if you still care about the issue or if you fear the frowns and sneers of persnickety nitpickers like The Blogfinger Grammarian, just say “Geanna’s photo” and you’re home free.

In informal situations, of course, you can usually get away with “the photo of Geanna’s.” Such small transgressions aren’t nearly as bad as parking inside the yellow-lined rectangles on Mt. Hermon Way. Just don’t try slipping such expressions into a legal brief, a scholarly article or a proposed amendment to the New Jersey Constitution.

I would argue that traditional “correctness” is usually to be preferred, though, whatever the context. It costs nothing and has no down side. And even though Zeus is dead, preserving small linguistic distinctions still has value, because losing them can make the language less precise. I have read that the Latin tongue became less precise in just such ways when the Roman civilization moved from its classical into its decadent phase. You know what followed that.


Ed. note: If you have a question for “The Blogfinger Grammarian” you may submit it via pg1425@verizon.net. We won’t answer every one, but we will choose those that seem of the greatest general interest — or maybe just those that happen to ring our bell.

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