Attorneys and Brigadiers.

I reproduce in its entirety this letter to the NYRB and the bracing response:

To the Editors:

I am ridiculously late in reading the NYR of November 19, 2015. In Judge Rakoff’s review of Professor John C. Coffee Jr.’s Entrepreneurial Litigation there are several references to the plural of “attorney general,” rendered there as “attorney generals.” I always have understood the plural to be “attorneys general.” Is this yet another of many instances in which the NYR knows something I do not know? Or is this (gasp!) an error in the NYR?

Florence Wagman Roisman
Rober H. McKinney School of Law
Indiana University
Indianapolis, Indiana

Jed S. Rakoff replies:

Sorry, Professor Roisman, there was no error. Your nice letter, however, gives me a chance to vent one of my pet peeves: against the use of the term “attorneys general” when the preferable plural is “attorney generals.” To be sure, Webster’s and most other dictionaries say either form is correct and do not express a preference. See, e.g., the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and American Heritage Dictionary, both available online. But although the term “attorney general,” in its first reported use in 1398, was a synonym for an attorney with a general practice (which might justify “attorneys general”—if you were living in the fourteenth century), the capitalized version has, in American parlance, always referred to the two-word title given to the government legal officer who has command of all the other government attorneys. No one would refer to two “brigadiers general,” so why say “attorneys general”? Or, in the words of James Tierney, former attorney general of Maine and now director of Harvard Law School’s Attorney General Clinic, “‘Attorneys general’ is stupid, silly, and not the way we talk in [everyday places].” I agree, although, in fairness, Tierney was previously director of Columbia Law School’s “Attorneys General Program”!

Music to my ears, and I thank jamessal for passing it along! (Also, I am pleased to see there is someone who is almost as behind in their journal reading as I am.)

Comments

  1. I’ve long thought that peever ogic can sometimes display unfamiliarity preference, following a rationale like this:

    a) Form A and form B are conceivable.
    b) Form B sounds unusual; it’s not what we use everyday.
    c) Therefore, form B must be correct/proper/educated. (And I, being one of the few who realize this, must now proselytize everyone about it.)

    Of course, the basic and well-studied form of peevery is to reject the forms used by the poor, the blacks, the country bumpkins and other socially low-prestige groups, under the thin veneer of “preserving language from decay” (even when—as it happens frequently—their form happens to be the original one). But I think this basic prejudice can generalize to the point where an unusual or unfamiliar form is by default assumed to be the correct one.

  2. I think you’re right.

  3. As a counterpoint, though, I’d offer that an attorney general is – despite the fossilization of the title that Rakoff notes – still thought of as a kind of attorney, whereas a brigadier general is thought of as a kind of general.

  4. True (he said reluctantly), but (bangs gavel) not dispositive.

  5. Well, I’m with Lazar on this. An attorney general is not a kind of general, same as a battle royal is not a kind of royal, so attorney generals sounds totally wrong to me. I have a weak spot for linguistic fossils like these remnants of law and court French in English, so I’d prefer them to be preserved, not to see them eroded by the forces of analogy.

  6. I’m with Lazar and Hans. Do those arguing for attorney generals also go along with using General as a title and form of address for the AG?

  7. Eli Nelson says:

    I think this example of a peeve against unusual-looking forms going a bit overboard (this might be a silly or pointless thing to say, since the word “pet peeve” already implies an unproportional reaction to something of little consequence).

    This kind of argument by logic and analogy is really on no firmer ground than the type of thing you’d find in any ordinary prescriptivist style guide. The “stupid, silly” part is kind of meaningless. I’s obvious that there are people nowadays who say and write “attorneys general” who are neither of these things (so it can’t mean “used by stupid, silly people”) and as other people have mentioned, there is enough analogy and precedent for “attorneys general” that it doesn’t seem to be safe to say that it originated from the usage of stupid and silly people.

    With regard to “not the way we talk in [everyday places],” that’s seems to me to be the same kind of criticism of forms used by supposed “social climbers” that we see in the idea of “U” vs. “non-U” English, or in many criticisms of “and I” used in objective contexts.

  8. J.W. Brewer says:

    During the tail end of Judge Rakoff’s time in private practice right before he went on the bench, I worked with him a little bit when I was a quite junior lawyer. He was and is a bracing fellow, and not one to blindly or blandly defer to consensus (even or especially elite/”respectable” consensus?) when his own considered view is to the contrary.

    Praise and honor, btw, to the magazine in question if it indeed lets its writers maintain their own personal preference when it comes to matters of this kind rather than subjecting them to a mandatory house style.

  9. The English Language is the one to blame. It insolently preserves the utterly ungrammatical Noun-Adjective order in certain usages, and so forces inadequate compromises by its users, however perfect they might be. I propose sending the E.L. to a grammar reeducation camp.

  10. Bernardo Verda says:

    Perhaps one could declare that “attorney general” is actually a single word (for which the correct spelling includes a space after the ‘y’)?

    Admittedly this would be somewhat unusual, by current standards — but since when has standard English spelling or grammar been much hampered by logic or consistency?

  11. The NYRB should offer peace terms: We’ll use “attorneys general” if you guys start using forms like “the king’s of Spain beard.” We all know how confusing s mobile made things in PIE; it’s time to stamp out this new English take on the roving s. To take a diachronic stand against ss mobile, as it were.

    (I do prefer “attorneys general,” but I have the self-awareness to know that it’s somewhere on the spectrum from quirky to tiresome and certainly wouldn’t sneer at someone who put the plural marker s at the end like a normal person.)

  12. I don’t get the resistance. A kind of attorney? Yes, the kind at the top of the food chain, setting policy and giving orders, like . . . a general. Our Attorney General is not the medical equivalent of your GP — a sense, as the letters make clear, that has never existed in the U.S. Which means this particular fossil is like the type found in Creationist museums. In this country’s history at least it’s very existence owes to people who just can’t stand certain facts of life, e.g., that the world is older than a stupid interpretation of the Bible says and that language changes, in this case via analogy about a half a millennium ago. And sure, remnants that old (and older) can have their charm, but here we have a rare example of language change naturally aligning with logic, common sense, and clarity — everything our benighted watch dogs claim to cherish — and still they interfere, insisting the phrase be spoken in the syntax of another language, really, while roiling the waters for your average reader. Now, even if that doesn’t spoil the charm itself, should charm really be the chief criterion for the standard pluralized title of one our country’s most powerful government officials? It’s not as if language lacks charming remnants elsewhere.

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    FWIW, the google books n gram viewer has the “attorneys” version as consistently more common (like fivefold or sixfold) than the “generals” version even into the 21st century, with no obvious evidence the “generals” version has been gaining ground over recent decades. It may well be that frankly most ordinary people have little or no occasion to ever use a plural of this particular bigram and actual usage is thus overwhelmingly dominated by those already socialized into the specialized and archaism-loving jargon of a particular professional subculture. So one could argue for the superiority of the majority variant or just say, hey, it’s the majority variant – it doesn’t actually need to justify itself with reference to charm or logic or anything. Not that I begrudge Judge Rakoff his preference for the minority variant (at least if he avoids the affectation of referring to holders of the office as “General SURNAME”).

    It may also be relevant that NP’s with this unusual-for-English word order are not quite so unusual in legal jargon due to the heavy historical influence of Latin and French. So even lawyers who never took any Latin or French in their own school days are used to instances like, e.g., “conditions precedent” as the plural of “condition precedent.” (Trust me, “condition precedents” sounds totally bizarre in a WTAF way.) So the “attorneys” version will be less weird because more analogous to more other things to someone already familiar with that particular sub-variety of English.

  14. In Australia, “attorneys-general” is still the proper plural, just like “governors general”.

    Attorney-generals must be an American thing.

    Now, how about those “mother-in-laws” and those “commander-in-chiefs”?

  15. An attorney general is not a kind of general, same as a battle royal is not a kind of royal

    Yes, he is. He is the commander, head honcho, leader, or — as it’s been put since the country’s founding — general of the attorneys working for the US government. In English, especially in titles, modifiers precede subjects. That’s why royale in your not really analogous phrase is spelled such: it’s a French borrowing. Other than in some culinary sense, royale isn’t an English word. There’s no such thing as a battle royal.

  16. Am I the only one dying of curiosity about the “[everyday places]”? What could the original have been?

    @leoboiko: I think that does happen, but in fairness to peevers, lectio difficilor potior is not totally senseless.

  17. So one could argue for the superiority of the majority variant or just say, hey, it’s the majority variant – it doesn’t actually need to justify itself with reference to charm or logic or anything.

    I’m sorry, one could argue for something (how you don’t say), but justifying that thing (with words taken from my comment) is a waste of time? That’s just tendentious and snotty — not to mention vacuous, because I wasn’t “justifying” anything. Rather, addressing previous comments, I was doing exactly what you said one could do (thank goodness): arguing for the superiority of the majority variant.

    You’re probably right about legalise, though: given the nature of English syntax, the history of the phrase in this country, and it’s meaning being so clear as a title, it’s hard to imagine the variant catching on at all without the confusion, smugness, and insecurity engendered by jargon. It’s worth noting, however, that a title whose meaning is clear from its two constituent words and whose word order fits the syntax of its language isn’t itself jargon. It’s just a good title.

  18. What makes Professor Roisman’s letter itself not a peeve?

    Jamessal, there’s no point in invoking a general rule about how to construct NPs, in trying to analyse a particular NP which has already been constructed.

  19. Q: Is the US surgeon general a kind of surgeon or a kind of general?

    I think you’d get some disagreement on the street about this. The job is something like a surgeon’s but the uniform seems to be a general’s.

    A: An admiral!

    At least the current one is. Not sure how that affects the whole plural thing.

  20. We have a Comptroller and Auditor General, which adds to the pluralisation misery. I don’t find Attorneys General too terrible (though I probably wouldn’t say it), but Comptrollers and Auditors General somehow seems to multiply entities beyond necessity. I could imagine Comptroller and Auditors (General) by analogy with bed and breakfasts, but that sounds even more recherché than Attorneys General to my ear.

  21. @jamessal: The “general of attorneys” angle (which Rakoff seemed to be hinting at) really seems like a post hoc rationalization to me. The AG is thought of as the state’s most senior attorney more readily than they’re thought of as a military-style general: as Keith points out, no one addresses them in that way, and Google provides essentially zero hits for “general of (the) attorneys” in the sense that you’re supposing. And civil society provides us with several other cases of “[Title] General” which couldn’t, even when squinting, be cast as “General of the [Titles]”.

    And English “royal” does see use as a postnominal suffix: ask HRH Anne, Princess Royal. I don’t think anyone would refer to her and a hypothetical counterpart as the “Princess Royals”.

  22. per incuriam says:

    general of the attorneys working for the US government
    Other countries have AGs too, including countries with no actual attorneys (or generals for that matter) so this re-analysis simply would not work.

    There’s no such thing as a battle royal
    If this is to be read as a descriptive rather as a prescriptive statement then it is plainly wrong.

  23. J.W. Brewer says:

    The “kind of general not a kind of attorney” analysis is clearly an after-the-fact reanalysis – almost an eggcorn – driven by the fact that the original structure had become puzzling/opaque for some speakers. (In Commonwealthish countries more likely to have Governors-General, Auditors-General, etc. maybe there’s less opacity because there are more instances of the old pattern?) But such reanalyses-due-to-forgetting-what-the-original-meant are one not-uncommon mechanism of language change, of course. It just seems not to have triumphed in this particular instance to the extent of driving the plural form based on the original analysis out of its dominant position.

    I dare say that when Judge Rakoff was a young federal prosecutor many decades ago and the Attorney General of the day was, let’s say, John Mitchell, he may not have subjectively understood the (admittedly hierarchical) structure of the Department of Justice in military-analogy terms, with himself as platoon leader somewhere in the Mekong Delta required to salute and do whatever damn fool thing the top brass in Saigon or the Pentagon told him to. .

  24. “If you do wrongfully seize Hereford’s rights,
    Call in the letters patents that he hath
    By his attorneys-general to sue
    His livery, and deny his offer’d homage;”

    I like fossils.

  25. Irrespective of the writers to the editors of the New York Review of Books or commenters of this blog’s collective opinion, the placement of plural and possessive marks in English is not subject to any form of logic — if it works with your Sprachgefühl, it works.

    (You might as usual be advised to adjust your Gefühl for pragmatic reasons like addressing known peevers on a Grants Board).

  26. @J.W. Brewer: There are a few Auditors and Inspectors General in various US states, too. The DoJ has also got a Solicitor General who tries cases before the Supreme Court – and then of course there’s the Postmaster General. (Admittedly, he did claim to be a general while interrogating Cosmo Kramer.)

  27. battle royal

    Indeed, this form appears in dictionaries and has many more ghits than battle royale.

    the king’s of Spain beard

    The proper Early Modern English syntax would be “the king’s beard of Spain”, cf. Lanceor the king’s son of Ireland in Malory.

  28. there is enough analogy and precedent for “attorneys general” that it doesn’t seem to be safe to say that it originated from the usage of stupid and silly people.

    Nobody’s saying it originated from the usage of stupid and silly people. It originated as perfectly standard usage, but the language has changed since those days. And nobody’s saying it is now the usage of stupid and silly people; it is still standard in professional use, and is in fact (assuming J.W. Brewer’s figures are correct) still more common in general. The point is simply that there is nothing wrong with “attorney generals” even though it is not historically “correct”; those who use it are using the resources of their own language in a perfectly normal way.

    Yes, he is. He is the commander, head honcho, leader, or — as it’s been put since the country’s founding — general of the attorneys working for the US government.

    I fear that, as Brewer says, that’s an after-the-fact reanalysis; the country’s founders would certainly have told you general was an adjective modifying “attorney.” (And yes, there is such a thing as a battle royal.)

    I have a weak spot for linguistic fossils like these remnants of law and court French in English

    Oh, so do I, and I’ve probably used “attorney generals” and “attorneys general” more or less equally over the years. It’s one of those cases where my love of fossils clashes with my love for democratic usage.

  29. Eli Nelson says:

    Well, I agree that “attorney generals” is not wrong. I just think James Tierney went too far in condemning the other usage.

  30. An old joke:
    A: We call him PDG [pe de ʒe].
    B: What is PDG?
    A: Président-directeur général
    B: In my country, its either a president, a director, or a general.

  31. J.W. Brewer says:

    Lazar: Many/most U.S. states have solicitors general working under their respective attorneys general. But to restate a point I made earlier, I don’t even claim that general usage conforms with specialist usage so much as hypothesize that specialist usage dominated general usage, because non-specialists very rarely have occasion to speak of more than one (e.g.) solicitor general at a time and thus don’t have occasion to tip their hand as to which variant they prefer for the plural. “Octopodes” might well be the dominant plural form if most of the time no one other than cephalopodologists [?? whatever the relevant group of scholarly researchers are called …] had occasion to speak or write about more than one octopus at a time.

  32. By law, the surgeon general of the U.S. (there are also state surgeons general, as well as ones for the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force) holds the rank of vice admiral (three stars) in the Commissioned Corps of the Public Health Service. This is a somewhat oddball service: like Starfleet, all its members are officers with naval titles, and all of them are health professionals of one sort or another (physicians, surgeons, dentists, nurses, etc.)

    They are directly commissioned by the President (that is, they need not graduate from a military academy or officer training program) and wear uniforms (but do not as a rule carry arms) so that if captured in a war zone they must be treated as officer POWs, not as spies. They can also easily be seconded to specific military units as needed. Like the Coast Guard, the President may militarize the Commissioned Corps in wartime. Its current size is about 6800 members.

    The Surgeon General’s superior is the Assistant Secretary for Health, who may either be a full admiral in the Commissioned Corps (the only one) or a civilian: in the latter case, the President may or may not commission him or her post facto.

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (formerly the Coast and Geodetic Survey) has a commissioned corps of the same sort and for the same reasons. It has only about 300 members.

  33. J.W. Brewer says:

    BTW, there’s a *different* title that’s extremely common at least in AmEng to mean “head lawyer for a particular business entity or non-profit organization or government agency.” That’s “General Counsel.” A type of counsel (and whether “counsel” really means something subtly different than “attorney” or is a synonym that may be used according to taste is a question one could digress upon for some time,* but if it’s not an exact synonym in AmEng, it’s very close and the meanings heavily overlap), not a type of general. Modifier before noun as is the default for English NP’s. Pluralized as general counsels, not generals counsel. Quick look at google books suggests this sense had emerged by the 1890’s, when French word order had perhaps ceased to be productive in legalese for new coinages but only accounted for a certain existing inventory of fixed phrases.

    *If you go back far enough in time and to the other side of the Atlantic, “attorney” and “counsel[or]” were different roles within the English legal profession just as “solicitor” and “barrister” remain to this day. But on this side of the Atlantic, those distinctions broke down no later than IIRC some time in the 19th century, just as frontier lawyers like the young Abe Lincoln had to get by without wigs and gowns when they went to court.

  34. Additionally, in Britain, “attorney” became a pejorative by the later eighteenth century, although I don’t think it is understood precisely why.

  35. It always has been. The first OED quotation s.v. attorney in the sense ‘attorney at law’ is from 1337: “Attourneis in cuntré theih geten silver for noht.” By an Act of 1873 the terms solicitor, attorney, and proctor were all consolidated under the first. Counsellors at law were either barristers (with some subdivisions of these) or serjeants until the latter were abolished in 1880.

    A friend of mine, a civil appeals lawyer in New York (and much more of a barrister than a solicitor, as far as his practice went) thought the term attorney pretentious, and preferred to be known simply as a lawyer.

    ObDorothySayers:

    You are too easily surprised,’ said Mr. Towkington. ‘Many words have no legal meaning. Others have a legal meaning very unlike their ordinary meaning. For example, the word “daffy-down-dilly.” It is criminal libel to call a lawyer a daffy-down-dilly. ha! Yes, I advise you never to do such a thing. No, I certainly advise you never to do it.’

    A daffy-down-dilly, or ambidexter, was in the 16C a lawyer who took money from both sides of a case. You can well see that such an accusation would not only be defamatory but might well provoke a breach of the peace.

  36. January First-of-May says:

    Um, a brigadier general is a kind of general? I thought it referred to some kind of brigadier who is in some way general.

    More seriously, I see no problem with “attorneys general”, “conditions precedent”, “battles royale” and “mothers-in-law”, and find it unfortunate that English doesn’t mark plurality on adjectives (as French and Russian do), because if it did this would not have been a problem in the first place. It does sound a bit silly, however (and sometimes requires one to know the etymology).

  37. At the risk of undermining my very first observation in this thread, the British and other Commonwealth armies do use “brigadier” for their fourth-highest general officer rank; in American usage, though, that term doesn’t exist on its own. The double-barreled military ranks all seem somewhat murky in their origins (and somehow the Germans managed to oppose themselves to both French and British practice with formulations like “Generalmajor” and “Oberstleutnant”), but the general feeling in the English-speaking world is that a military officer holding the rank of “Thing1 Thing2” is a kind of Thing2, and gets addressed as such.

  38. Jamessal, there’s no point in invoking a general rule about how to construct NPs, in trying to analyse a particular NP which has already been constructed.

    True, but we have two competing constructions for the plural form, so in effect it hasn’t fully been constructed. And there’s plenty reason to invoke a general rule when deciding between two forms. The general rule is what native speakers are accustomed to — how, in this case, they’ll intuit which lexeme is the modifier and then the meaning of the phrase — and that should be a point in favor of the form adhering to the general rule on its own. In this case, not only does that form jibe with the meaning of the phrase, but the phrase also happens to be the title of a powerful government official. So, though as Ran says, Lectio difficilor potior is hardly senseless, it makes no sense to invoke it here. The populace should be enabled to understand the roles of its government’s appointees as easily as possible.

    the country’s founders would certainly have told you general was an adjective modifying “attorney.”

    Yes, they would, but so what? In what sense (I ask rhetorically) was general being applied as a modifier? Nobody said the AG has always been a military general, with the word attorney modifying it. I said he’s always been a general in the sense of being a head honcho, commander, policy-setter, etc.; Rakoff wrote, “the capitalized version has, in American parlance, always referred to the two-word title given to the government legal officer who has command of all the other government attorneys. No one would refer to two ‘brigadiers general,’ so why say ‘attorneys general’?” Sure, that last sentence ignores the linguistic history to which you and J.W. Brewer referred, but we’ve had some more history, i.e., change, since then — change involving the general syntactic rules of English — and that change supports the commonsense plural “attorney generals.” So, as Rakoff asks, why say “attorneys general”? Am I missing something?

    There’s no such thing as a battle royal
    If this is to be read as a descriptive rather as a prescriptive statement then it is plainly wrong.

    That’s true. I was wrong about that; should have left off a sentence earlier. But that mistake does give me the opportunity to point out that it took only a couple decades for the WWE — that institutions’ royals being the only example Hat’s link provides, even though the WWE, back when it was the WWF, often wrote it “royale” — to name its most significant battle royal “The Royal Rumble” (in fact, I don’t know if the WWE still ever fronts “royal” or “royale” for any of its events anymore). Then again, given our political choices next week, I suppose it makes sense that even this AG-plural-form trifle has yet to be fully resolved.

    *If you go back far enough in time and to the other side of the Atlantic, “attorney” and “counsel[or]” were different roles within the English legal profession just as “solicitor” and “barrister” remain to this day. But on this side of the Atlantic, those distinctions broke down no later than IIRC some time in the 19th century, just as frontier lawyers like the young Abe Lincoln had to get by without wigs and gowns when they went to court.

    Makes sense. Frontier lawyers were literally traveling circuits via horseback to make their court appearances. Those journeys were no fun. Getting enough people with legal training to make them was difficult enough. Enlisting the necessary attorneys, counselors, solicitors, and barristers to play their distinct roles would’ve been impossible. I don’t imagine young Lincoln much minded leaving his pack light of wig and gown.

  39. In general, major means half a step up and lieutenant means half a step down; a plain major was originally a captain-major. The particular pattern of rank names in any given armed force represents a somewhat random crystallization of the original fluidity. To prevent confusion, NATO maps all ranks onto numbers: OF-1 (low) through OF-10 (high) for officers, and OR-1 through OR-9 for “other ranks”, with the expectation that an OF-6 for example will be the lowest rank of general or admiral in any service. These are similar to, but not the same as, U.S. pay grades.

  40. I said he’s always been a general in the sense of being a head honcho, commander, policy-setter, etc.; Rakoff wrote, “the capitalized version has, in American parlance, always referred to the two-word title given to the government legal officer who has command of all the other government attorneys.

    As I said above, this really strikes me as a post hoc rationalization, akin to a folk etymology. I’m a “native” user of attorney generals who’s transitioned to an inconsistent acquired use of attorneys general, but I’ve never had the intuitive sense of the title referring to a kind of general in anything like the military usage. And again, any explanation offered for “attorney general” would have to be generalizable to other titles like “solicitor general”, “auditor general”, “inspector general”, “postmaster general” and “surgeon general”, and the analogy of a commanding officer simply fails in many of these cases. It’s a tenuous, grasping point, and your argument doesn’t need it.

    No one would refer to two ‘brigadiers general,’ so why say ‘attorneys general’?”

    Ask anybody on the street if a brigadier general is a kind of general, and they’ll agree. Ask them if an attorney general, surgeon general, or postmaster general is a kind of general, and they’ll laugh. As I noted above, they made a joke of this on Seinfeld.

  41. January First-of-May says:

    and somehow the Germans managed to oppose themselves to both French and British practice with formulations like “Generalmajor” and “Oberstleutnant”

    Russian ranks must be based on the German ones, then, because they also have генерал-майор.

  42. I never doubted, till this thread, that “general” in “attorney general” was an adjective misplaced owing to some legalese conventions. Most likely because in the respective Russian equivalent, “general” is an adjective: Генеральный прокурор. Same thing in Polish. But notably in Spanish it is the “attorney” part which turns into an adjective.

  43. Just as the rank of major was originally “captain major,” the rank of general was “captain general.” The term “general officer” is a back-formation from “general,” although the mistaken belief that latter is a shortening of the former is fairly common.

  44. Russian ranks for generals are a bit weird. General-lieutenant is higher rank then general-major for the apparent reason that ordinary level lieutenants wear 2 stars and majors 1 (larger) star. So that general-lieutenant is supposed to mean “a general who wears as many stars as lieutenant”. There is also a rank of general-colonel who wears 3 stars just like ordinary colonel. Colonel’s stars are the same size as major’s. It might be surmised then that instead of general-lieutenants Russian army should have general-<rank between major and colonel>, but that rank is sub-colonel and probably general-sub-colonel was considered weird in its own way.

  45. Secretary General Gorbachev, Chernenko, and Andropov were collectively known as secretaries. Or was the proper English “general secretary”, like some general contractor?

  46. Yes, Dmitry, but as you know and I know, in Russian both noun and adjective get pluralized. More to the point, I don’t think anyone would be temped to say Secretary Generals of the UN.

  47. According to the German Wikipedia — the most detailed explanation I could find — the trinity of sergeant : lieutenant (captain) : captain was first replicated on the regimental level as sergeant major : lieutenant colonel : colonel, probably in French usage. (In German the first one was Oberstwachtmeister for a long time, showing the same derivation from the sergeant (Wachtmeister) rank).

    ‘Sergeant major’ then became ‘major’ as a commissioned officer rank (but stayed on as a warrant officer rank in Anglophone terminology) before the trinity was replicated again as major general (= brigadier) : lieutenant general : general. (Again, German had Generalfeldwatchmeister for the first one initially).

  48. Generalfeldwatchmeister — I did think there was something dicey about how that came out, but I couldn’t see what it was before now.

    (The -tch in English spells the affricate arising from /-ki-/ in the causative/inchoative of ‘wake’ — the -t in German marks derivation from wachen).

  49. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    a brigadier general is thought of as a kind of general.

    I always need to remind myself when watching French policiers that Brigadier is a very junior rank in the Gendarmerie, almost as low as you can get, and doesn’t at all correspond to a Brigadier in the UK. Incidentally, do you actually say “Brigadier General” (in full) in the USA in everyday speech? The only term I ever heard when encountering real ones when I was young was “Brigadier”.

  50. I never doubted, till this thread, that “general” in “attorney general” was an adjective misplaced owing to some legalese conventions.

    It is an adjective, but rather than being misplaced it’s stuck in an odd-looking place.

    Secretary General Gorbachev, Chernenko, and Andropov were collectively known as secretaries. Or was the proper English “general secretary”, like some general contractor?

    The English term is in fact “general secretary”; Reagan’s “Tear down this wall!” speech was addressed (in absentia) to General Secretary Gorbachev.

    More to the point, I don’t think anyone would be temped to say Secretary Generals of the UN.

    That’s what I’d say; “Secretaries General” sounds ostentatiously formal to me.

    Incidentally, do you actually say “Brigadier General” (in full) in the USA in everyday speech? The only term I ever heard when encountering real ones when I was young was “Brigadier”.

    We do. I can’t speak for military personnel, who may use a shortened form, but I’ve never said or (as far as I remember) heard anything but the full Brigadier General.

  51. Trond Engen says:

    Norwegian army ranks:

    OF9 General
    OF8 Generalløytnant
    OF7 Generalmajor

    OF6 Brigadér
    OF5 Oberst
    OF4 Oberstløytnant
    OF3 Major

    OF2 Kaptein
    OF1 Løytnant
    OF1 Fenrik

    The rank OF6 didn’t exist in my conscription year 1988-89, and WP says it was renamed in 1997 to be more in line with NATO standards. Before that there were two ranks Oberst 1 and Oberst 2.

  52. I see on consulting the OED that they actually distinguish two senses of the word, and assign a different plural to each. The obsolete general sense of “A legal representative or deputy acting under a general commission or ‘power’ of attorney, and representing his principal in all legal matters: opposed to *attorney special* or *attorney particular*” has the plural “attorneys general”, but the specific (capitalised) sense of “a legal officer of the state empowered to act in all cases in which the state is a party”, used as a title in various countries, takes the plural “Attorney-Generals”.

    This is an old, unupdated entry, but still – maybe a good basis on which to settle the dispute.

  53. Works for me!

  54. Ditto, but . . .
    the country’s founders would certainly have told you general was an adjective modifying “attorney.”

    Not so sure. The post is first proposed in this statute:

    And there shall also be appointed a meet person, learned in law, to act as attorney-general for the United States, who shall be sworn or affirmed to a faithful execution of his office; whose duty it shall be to prosecute and conduct all suits in the Supreme Court in which the United States shall be concerned, and to give his advice and opinions upon question of law when required by the President of the United Staes, or when requested by the heads of any departments, touching any matters that may concern their departments, and shall receive such compensation for his services as shall law be provided. (a)
    APPROVED, September 24, 1780

    DA’s, too, are suggested in similar language on the previous page, and they aren’t first referred to as “attorney[s]” first but also rather “meet [qualified (obs.)] person[s] learned in law.” Yes, Etymonline does say: “Attorney general first recorded 1530s in sense of “legal officer of the state” (late 13c. in Anglo-French), from French, hence the odd plural (subject first, adjective second).” But it seems that by the late 18th century, in the founding documents of a country on the other side of the Atlantic, the intended syntactic roles (and thus intended plural form) were, at the very least, more ambiguous — the title is hyphenated, allowing for neither lexeme to be solely a modifier, and it calls first for a person qualified to do such and such and learned in law, not an attorney so qualified — though my strong sense is the plural would have been, from the start, “attorney-generals”

  55. J.W. Brewer says:

    Via the google books corpus you can find early 19th century uses of both variants on both sides of the Atlantic. The institutional preference of the federal Dep’t of Justice can perhaps be seen from the titles of works such as: “Opinions of the Attorneys General of the United States: From the Beginning of the Government to March 1st, 1841: Taken from Official Documents Transmitted to Congress; to which are Now Added a Copious Index, with References to the Clauses of the Constitution and of Foreign and Indian Treaties Referred To, and a Table of the Acts of Congress Cited and Commented Upon.” (Subsequent volumes compile such opinions through the tenure of the subsequent attorneys general serving under Presidents Tyler through Obama.)

  56. David Marjanović says:

    The proper Early Modern English syntax would be “the king’s beard of Spain”, cf. Lanceor the king’s son of Ireland in Malory.

    …Whoa. That probably violates a whole bunch of supposed linguistic universals.

    cephalopodologists [?? whatever the relevant group of scholarly researchers are called …]

    Malacologists (in charge of all mollusks) or, recently, teuthologists (nominally in charge of squid only).

    Before that there were two ranks Oberst 1 and Oberst 2.

    Austria has Oberleutnant in addition to Oberstleutnant; I have no idea where in the hierarchy it goes or whether Germany even shares it.

  57. Are we sure king’s son isn’t being taken as something of a compound here? By the time of the KJV, at least, (Late Early Modern English?) the modern pattern seems to have been in use: “one of the king of Israel’s servants” (2 Kings 3:11), “for the kingdom of God’s sake” (Luke 18:29).

  58. @David, how does it work in (Standard) German? Wenn es der Mann aus Spanien eine Frau gibt… ?Des Mannes aus Spanien die Frau?

  59. Amid many “[title]’s [relation] of [place]”, I just found an example in Malory that seems to disprove the compound hypothesis (“for the King’s love of Heaven” in Book V, Chapter X), and then one that seems to support it (“letters of love from King Faramon of France’s daughter” in Book VIII, Chapter V). Maybe the latter was an accidental vernacularism, like the lone its in the KJV.

  60. der Mann — editing mixup 🙁 I’m not even sure now that es gibt takes a beneficiary in Standard, though somebody learnt me it a long time ago, but dative it should surely be.

  61. @Lars: In Standard Literary German, it’s die Frau des Manns aus Spanien, colloquially die Frau vom Mann aus Spanien. Very colloquially (and probably regionally limited – I associate these constructions with the Rhein-Ruhr area)) dem Mann aus Spanien seine Frau. With the Genitive, German has possessor-possessed normally only with personal names and names of relatives that come close to being personal names (Peters Frau, Papas Auto). Outside of this it’s poetical or archaic (des Windes Schwingen, meines Vaters Pferde) and longer items like des Königs von Irland, des Manns aus Spanien wouldn’t be usually put ahead of the possessed.
    As for gibt, it isn’t normally used that way in German – you’d either use haben hier (wenn der Man aus Spanien eine Frau hat) or the genitive (wenn es eine Frau des Manns aus Spanien gibt), but you seemed to look for a non-genitive construction to lead up to your question.

  62. I think an Oberleutnant is a first lieutenant (O2) and an Oberstleutnant is a lieutenant-colonel (O5).

  63. @Hans, as I said I don’t know where I got the idea of a dative possessor with es gibt — but clearly not from German. Vey iz mir.

    And of course word order can fix the most common cases of prepositional (or relative) phrases intruding between possessor and possessed — but is that really so universal that the king’s beard of Spain qualifies as a unique counterexample?

  64. Piers Plowman passus XXI, ll. 141-150 (spelling modernized):

    ‘What lord art Thou?’ quoth Lucifer · a voice aloud said,
    ‘The lord of might and of main · that made all things.
    Duke of this dim place · anon undo the gates,
    That Christ may come in · the king’s son of heaven.’
    And with that breath hell brake · with all Belial’s bars;
    For any wy or ward · wide opened the gates.
    Patriarchs and prophets · populus in tenebris
    Sang with saint John · ecce agnus Dei!
    Lucifer might not look · so light him ablent;
    And those that our Lord loved · with that light forth flew.

    John Ball often referred to Piers, and a letter was found in his pocket after his death containing the lines (as modernized by William Morris):

    John the Miller ground small, small, small,
    The king’s son of Heaven shall pay for all.

  65. Trond Engen says:

    Three alliterated syllables per line all the way through*. But that makes it a dubious source for word order.

    *) By the way, was ecce pronounced [ek’se]?

  66. Either “That Christ may come in · the king’s son of heaven” or “That Christ may come in · the king of heaven’s son” would alliterate properly (the third stress must alliterate with the first or second or both, the fourth may not alliterate with any other stress). The line “And with that breath hell brake · with all Belial’s bars” is actually over-alliterated. By Old English or Old Norse standards, the second halves of the lines have too many slacks, but that can’t really be helped.

  67. Trond Engen says:

    Agreed. But the word order may still have been altered for stylistic reasons, either as a poetic archaism or to emphasize “the king’s son”.

    I think I overlooked “bars”. I also overlooked that “come” doesn’t really work as a stressed syllable. Maybe it did back then.

  68. David Marjanović says:

    Königssohn is a fixed compound in German fairytales that are too old to use Prinz. But is heaven a country that has a crown prince?

    des Manns

    ?!? You write it three times, so evidently this isn’t a typo, but I’ve literally never encountered Manns at all, only Mannes. This -e- fluctuates in many other words, but not in this one.

    Very colloquially (and probably regionally limited – I associate these constructions with the Rhein-Ruhr area)) dem Mann aus Spanien seine Frau.

    Also widespread in Austria, where (colloquially/dialectally) it’s close to obligatory with personal names and the like. (The only competitor, the genitive being restricted to the written language, is noun compounding, with the name turning into a prefix; I find this very similar to the Slavic adjectives in -in-.)

    but is that really so universal that the king’s beard of Spain qualifies as a unique counterexample?

    …Of course not, I was tired. Languages with freer word order, like Latin, Greek (at least Ancient) and all of Slavic, routinely put anything anywhere.

    Piers Plowman passus XXI, ll. 141-150 (spelling modernized):

    Whoa. All this alliteration, and it doesn’t even rhyme. Splendid isolation indeed.

  69. Trond Engen says:

    Königssohn is a fixed compound in German fairytales that are too old to use Prinz.

    Good point. It’s what I didn’t realize I was grasping for with “emphasis” on the phrase.

    Himlens Kongesøn is used in Grundtvig’s Danish translation of Puer Natus in Bethlehem from 1820 (possibly borrowing from Hans Tausen’s translation from the age of the Lutheran Reformation, but I can’t find the text of that on the Web) .

    But is heaven a country that has a crown prince?

    Heaven is God’s kingdom. Or at least it’s where God resides until his Kingdom will come, on Earth as it is in Heaven. “Heaven’s Kingdom’s Son” follows by extension. It may not be exact theology, but as a kenning it’s impeccable.

  70. @David: des Manns
    Mannes is certainly more frequent, but you’ll find Manns as well. Duden has it as an admissible variant, too

  71. The Angolcynn only used rhyme as a special effect until “The fine French kings came over in a flutter of flags and dames / We liked their smiles and battles, but we never could say their names.” It occasionally pops up in Beowulf, but Langland was part of the 14C Alliterative Revival (or Survival), along with the author of Sir Gawain and others.

  72. David Marjanović says:

    I’ve literally never encountered Manns at all

    As usual, this is literally incorrect; I have encountered Manns genug (“enough of a man” meaning “not too cowardish”; obsolete).

    the 14C Alliterative Revival (or Survival)

    Ah, interesting. I didn’t know about that.

    Just yesterday I had an occasion to gaze upon the beginning of the Nibelungenlied (early 13C, the first stanza probably being a bit younger than the rest). It rhymes even by modern standards, and I can’t find any alliteration as part of a verse; the three kings of the Burgunds, presumably taken from earlier material rather than invented in the 13C, do alliterate (Gunther*, Gernot, Giselher), but they’re spread out over two lines as if the poet hadn’t even noticed!

    * That one’s sort of historical: somewhere in a plausible location there’s a stone with GVNDAHARIVS REX BVRGVNDIONVM written on it.

  73. There are only about 200 lines of Stabreim in High German in four poems. Here’s the first few lilnes of the Hildebrandslied (which as whole shows substantial Low German features):

    Ik gihorta ðat seggen ðat sih urhettun ænon muotin
    Hiltibrant enti Haðubrant untar heriun tuem
    sunufatarungo iro saro rihtun
    garutun se iro guðhamun gurtun sih iro suert ana
    helidos ubar hringa do sie to dero hiltiu ritun […]

    You can see that a lot of extra syllables are used by Old Norse or even Old English standards, much more like Middle English. And after the Old High German period, alliterative verse was completely lost in the German tradition.

  74. If I recall correctly, the original of the Hildebrandslied came from Langobard Italy and its original language was Old High German; it then was transferred into Old Saxon, but incompletely, so that numerous OHG forms still show up (e.g. in the lines JC quotes, the form muotin “met” shows OHG uo for PGmc. /o:/, instead of Old Saxon /o:/.

  75. It’s amazing how these epics collect dialectal forms as they travel (Homer of course being the locus classicus).

  76. GVNDAHARIVS REX BVRGVNDIONVM

    Somewhere I’ve seen it in Latin as “Gondocharius.”

  77. David Marjanović says:

    Yep, the Hildebrandslied is a remarkably bad translation from OHG to Old Saxon.

    Somewhere I’ve seen it in Latin as “Gondocharius.”

    Interesting.

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