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A mongrel language

English started out Germanic, deriving from Anglo-Saxon (A 14th-century John Simon would have said degenerating from Anglo-Saxon), but then picked up all sorts of lumber from the French and Latin used by Norman overlords. In its magpie fashion, it has been picking up shiny pieces of other languages ever since.

The problem for many writers is that some of those pieces wrenched from other languages retain their original properties.

For example, a recent Sun article referred to the Rev. Marion Curtis Bascom, a  Baltimore civil rights leader, as a confidante of Martin Luther King Jr. Confidant, a close friend, one with whom confidences can be shared, comes to English from French, where it has two spellings, masculine and feminine. And so, in English as well as in French, a confidante is a close female friend. The Rev. Mr. Bascom was a confidant of the Rev. Dr. King.

The inane pleonasm close confidant also turns up occasionally in copy, but don’t get me started on that. You know how I get.

There are also a number of survivals of Latin and Greek in English. Take as an example alumnus (male graduate), alumna (female graduate), alumni (group of male graduates or male and female graduates) and alumnae (group of female graduates). One regularly sees errors such as this one posted on a University of Florida technology help desk: “I've been an Alumni for a while and have checked my email constantly. Why has my email suddenly disappeared?”

The frequency of an alumni in writing should tell you pretty much all you need to know about the current worth of a bachelor’s degree in this country.

A knottier question is what to do about Taliban, which is in its original language a plural noun. Talib (student) is the singular. Many articles in the news media use Taliban as a singular for the guerrilla organization, though The Sun has, somewhat inconsistently, stuck to the plural. I suspect that the singular usage may prevail over time — unless the situation in Afghanistan is resolved and Americans can return to forgetting that the country is there.

All this is what makes English treacherous. Some borrowings retain their original characteristics while others are naturalized into the language. This compels writers and editors to pay attention. 

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:22 PM | | Comments (2)


While it's true that the hypereducated are careful to use "alumna" and "almni" and so on, it seems like a lot to ask English speakers to know gender and declination of borrowed words like "alumn*".

In general, once a word has been borrowed, all bets are off as to its meaning and form. The plural in English of "octopus" is "octopuses." :-) One of my friends likes to point out that "fajita" means "little strip" in Spanish, but that's not exactly what people ordering fajitas at the local Mexican joint thought they were asking for. Hence also we end up with pleonasms (great word) like "pizza pie" or the singular-in-English "tamale."

re: that latter, there is the nice story that "pea" is a singular back-formation from the word "pease," a ME word that was not in fact plural but was taken to be. True fact! :-)

"In its magpie fashion, it has been picking up shiny pieces of other languages ever since."

A felicitous line, sir.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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