Words & Stuff

AAA: Times and Places

(2 January 2000)

A few miscellaneous items this week to get the new year off to a good start.

Letter to the Editor

Elliott Moreton, amanuensis at large, forwarded this timely item:

Dear Editor:

Starting today, January 1, 2000, we will all be living in the future! This will have many crucial impacts for culture, industry, commerce, architecture, insurance, agriculture, law, transportation, geometry, medicine, demography, immunology, textual criticism, fashion, naval and military science, typography, religion, actuarial science, government, recreation, physics, city and regional planning, exchange-risk management, marketing, publishing, carpentry, polymer science, public speaking, posture, and the arts. What many of your readers will not necessarily realize is the impact on language use.

It will be inaccurate to refer to future states or events -- i.e., those subsequent to Dec. 31, 1999 -- using non-future verb tenses. People who will say (as I will hear a commentator on National Public Radio doing only this morning) that "Mr. Putin has conferred today with leaders of the principal Duma factions" (several hours into the future already!) will be misleading at best -- outright lies or deception at worst. I will become so angry when I'll hear that that I will turn the radio completely off.

I will be sure that your editorial staff figured this out years ago and will already catch any errors that might be going to slip into today's paper (which will not yet be delivered to my house, for reasons which will be unclear to me.).

I will remain, yours most faithfully &c.,
IEEE (Ret'd)

The Red Line Alphabet

In the Boston area, the subway system is known as the T. There are quite a few entertaining or interesting names for stops on the T; I'm always amused when I see a train headed for Wonderland, for instance. One branch of the T, the Red Line, runs from Alewife to Braintree; David Van Stone and John Palmieri long ago decided to expand those stops into a set of words that I call the Red Line Alphabet (I'd love to see it illustrated by Edward Gorey):

Alewife, Braintree, Chairfat, Dustcard, Earflu, Forkpipe, Gumwind, Heartplunge, Iceclock, Junkwrap, Knifebat, Lardbump, Moosewood, Newtjump, Oakpoem, Porkdrop, Quailsun, Rugbite, Swampball, Twighand, Upshrub, Vestworm, X-Squid, Yawnbath, Zooplug.

Zooplug! Last stop! Everyone out!

Where Are You From?

I'm intrigued by the variation in terms (and particularly in suffixes) used to denote people from a given location, nation, or state. Often in English, such terms are created by adding an -n to the end of the place name: American, Russian, Kenyan, Californian. But that only works when the place name ends in -a, and not always then. (It's Panamanian, not Panaman.) If it ends in -o, the -o is sometimes replaced by -an, as in Mexican, Puerto Rican, or San Franciscan. Or sometimes -nian is added, as in Torontonian. (The -ian suffix is most often attached to place names ending in -n, as in Bostonian, though it also gets attached elsewhere, as in Kentuckian.) Or sometimes -an is added, as in Ohioan.

People from places ending in -land get adjectives ending in -ish: Polish, Finnish, Scottish, Irish. But the nouns leave off the suffix: a Pole, a Finn, a Scot (but not an Ire). (And Poles used to be called Polacks, from polak, the Polish word for a Pole. But these days that term is generally derogatory.) Sweden adheres to this rule as well: a Swede, Swedish. Then again, a person from Portland is a Portlandite, not a Port.

People from China and Japan are adjectivally Chinese and Japanese, respectively, but those terms as nouns are often derogatory: I don't often hear "a Chinese" or "a Japanese." It sounds a little old-fashioned and unpleasant to my ear; I tend to resort to "Chinese person" and "Japanese person" instead. (Similarly, Jewish as an adjective is still connotation-neutral, but "a Jew" often has a derogatory tinge to it.)

And of course we mustn't forget the -er suffix, as in Vermonter, or the -egian suffix, as in Norwegian.

All this gets even more complicated when you start including words derived from other languages. Someone from Los Angeles is sometimes known as an Angeleno (more properly Angeleño in Spanish, I believe).

Some of the terms are just weird. Someone from Utah is a Utahn -- that just looks wrong. (The adjective is Utahan, which isn't much better.) A native of Glasgow is a Glaswegian. Someone from Moscow is a Muscovite. According to Britannica, someone from Bosnia is a Bosniac -- sounds like somebody Superman would fight. (MW10 uses the expected Bosnian. Perhaps Bosniac is a British spelling? But MW10 does list a great number of other British spellings.) Someone from Iraq is an Iraqi. Someone from Afghanistan is an Afghan, not (as commonly reported) an Afghani -- the Afghani is a monetary unit. Someone who lives in, or goes to school at, Cambridge is a Cantabrigian, while such a person's counterpart at Oxford can be called an Oxonian (both terms from Medieval Latin, both perhaps in less favor these days than formerly).

I haven't figured out yet what someone who lives in Mountain View should be called. A Mountain Viewer?

Reader comments and addenda page

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>