Saturday, February 15, 2014

Griping about "gubernatorial"

The word gubernatorial has reared its (ugly?) head again, in a Chicago Tribune column by Eric Zorn and a follow-up post at Language Log. Seems like a good excuse to look productive, since I wrote about the usage history of, and current hostility toward, the word gubernatorial in the Boston Globe just over three years ago. Is the word stilted, as the New York Times alleges? Has Goober Pyle influenced our feelings about it? Facts (as of 2010) and reader-inspired speculation below. 

No love for 'gov'?
(Originally published October 10, 2010, in the Globe Ideas section)

As we count down toward Election Day, more than a few citizens probably share the sentiments of reader Mark Leonard, who e-mailed last week wondering why we have to live with gubernatorial. "It sounds archaic and pompous," he said, and it’s not as if there aren’t alternatives: We could simply switch to "the more obvious governatorial."

And so we could. In fact, English has tried out a number of variations on the "governor" word family. In the 13th century, it borrowed govern from Old French, which eventually gave us governance, government, and, briefly, governator (insert Schwarzenegger joke here). Then, in the 15th century, English went back to the Latin gubernare to form another set of "govern" words -- gubernate, gubernatrix -- of which the sole survivor is gubernatorial.

We really can’t call it archaic -- gubernatorial is only 300 years old, and thriving -- but American critics have called it some other names along the way. Richard Grant White, a hugely popular 19th-century language maven, denounced the word in 1870 as "a clumsy piece of verbal pomposity ... pedantic, uncouth, and outlandish." Thirty years later, Ralcy H. Bell told his readers that only "pedants and 'small potatoes'" flaunted this big word. And Ambrose Bierce, in 1909, called gubernatorial "needless and bombastic." "Leave it to those who call a political office a 'chair,'" he urged. "'Gubernatorial chair' is good enough for them. So is hanging."

Why the ferocity? One possible reason is that gubernatorial was probably coined, and certainly embraced, by Americans. That would have tainted it in the eyes of our insecure language police, who were often anxious about our divergences from British usage. If England had given up on all its gubernator-derived words, why were we sticking with gubernatorial?

One obvious reason is that Americans had increasing numbers of state governors, and thus of elections in need of an adjective. As early as 1848, John Russell Bartlett, in "Americanisms," listed gubernatorial among words "whose origin has grown out of our peculiar institutions, and which consequently are of a permanent nature." (Caucus, lobby, mileage, and bunkum also made his list.) If the British had shared our need for gubernatorial, they too might have kept it current. But this commonsense analysis seems to have eluded the mavens.

As the 20th century marched on, though, Americans stopped judging their language by British usage, and gubernatorial prospered. So I was surprised to find official disapproval still on the books: Just last week, The New York Times’s in-house language guardian, Philip Corbett, objected to the word. "The Times’s stylebook advises against the stilted 'gubernatorial,'" he wrote in his Tuesday blog. "Make it 'Dan Onorato, the Democratic candidate for governor' or 'who is running for governor.'"

That "stilted" is the stylebook’s description, and it’s a bit hard to decode; "stilted language" is stiff, high-flown, artificially formal, but what makes a single word "stilted"? Possess, opine, parley, and apprehend have been accused of stiltedness; but while they’re clearly more formal than have, say, talk, and catch, how can you tell -- in the absence of context  -- that they're "stiff" or "pompous"?

Maybe gubernatorial is just too long and lumpy? But if that’s the problem, why aren’t words like gladiatorial, arachnophobia, discombobulation, excommunication, and indefatigable ever accused of pomposity? And you can hardly accuse gubernatorial of hanging out among the toffs and swells of English; if we’re tired of the word, it’s because we encounter it everywhere, as TV and radio and the Web and print media report on the current ... gubernatorial campaign.

In fact, Mark Leonard’s e-mail gave me a whole new theory about our distaste for gubernatorial, because he went on to ask about goober. The words aren’t related, but I started to wonder: What if goober has affected the older word’s reputation?

Goober started out as a Southern word (with African roots) for the peanut, but it soon began to accumulate slang senses. By 1862, according to the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, goober was a synonym for "bumpkin, yokel, simpleton." In the Confederate Army, it was a nickname for soldiers from North Carolina and Georgia. A goober-grabber was a poor white farmer.

But goober didn’t go national until the mid-20th century, when "The Andy Griffith Show" brought us the genial dimwit Goober Pyle. Along with its clipped form, goob, it became a popular term for anyone acting silly or dumb.

So here’s an idea: Maybe our resistance to gubernatorial isn’t related to the old prejudices at all. Maybe it’s just that the ignominy of goober, over the past half-century, has rubbed off on gubernatorial. Other words with the goo sound might also play a part: Gooey, googly, goofball, goofus, goombah, gooney bird ... except for googol, there’s not a lot of dignified restraint to be found among the dictionary’s goo- entries.

Of course, on the other side is the ubiquitous Google, working hard to make us like the sound of goo. That would be nice, because I don’t think gubernatorial is going away, whatever the Times stylebook says.