THESE UNITED STATES.

Mark Liberman has a post over at the Log investigating the question of how the United States changed from a plural subject to a singular one. There’s an idea floating around (popularized by Shelby Foote) that the change was due to the Civil War; this is certainly not true (see Mark’s earlier post on that subject—briefly, it all came from a 1909 joke by Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve that got taken seriously: “It was a point of grammatical concord which was at the bottom of the Civil War — ‘United States are,’ said one, ‘United States is,’ said another”), but how and when did the change happen? It turns out Minor Myers has studied usage in opinions of the United States Supreme Court from 1790 to 1919 and found that “the plural usage was the predominant usage in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. Only in the beginning of the twentieth century did the singular usage achieve preeminence and the plural usage disappear almost entirely.” Mark reproduces a very nice graph that shows the changing trends, with singular usage becoming briefly popular in the 1860s but then falling back again; there’s good discussion in both post and comments.

Comments

  1. A great tool for usage trends is Google’s News Archive Search with timeline.
    However, this is a tough one to analyze because both “United States is” and “United States are” get a lot of results where the verb refers to something else (as in “most doctors in the United States are…”). You can get past this by searching for phrases like “when the United States are” or “that the United States are” (vs. “is”) with the timeline set at 1790 to present.
    Interestingly, “when the United States are” and “that the United States are” show clear declines (the 2000-era instances tend to be British; the mid 1900s tend to be quotations of earlier legal citations; the database has more content as you get closer to the present so even a flat timeline is really a decline).
    But then there’s Laura Bush accepting an award in 2006: “And I want everyone here to know, and especially the people of Afghanistan, that the United States are steadfast partners in their development.” Maybe in Texas they still say “United States are”?

  2. In most times periods in most sources, alas, “united states” is NOT the subject of “is/are” in most of the hits for “united states is” and “united states are”. To automate the search (which I plan to try to do) you really have to parse the sentences.

  3. “The United States are steadfast partners in their development” allows you the opportunity to add “except Delaware”, and also makes it seem like there are more partners than just George Bush.
    Anyway it’s ‘The United States of America‘. You would never say ‘the United Colors of Benetton’ are … It’s Benetton and America that count, not the colors or states.
    And since I’m not a linguist I can be more interested in what I want to use myself than in which gets the most google hits.

  4. “The United States are steadfast partners in their development” allows you the opportunity to add “except Delaware”, and also makes it seem like there are more partners than just George Bush.
    Anyway it’s ‘The United States of America‘. You would never say ‘the United Colors of Benetton’ are … It’s Benetton and America that count, not the colors or states.
    And since I’m not a linguist I can be more interested in what I want to use myself than in which gets the most google hits.

  5. Proof, if any is still needed, that The Guardian’s tradition for misprints has nothing to do with hot lead type:

    Gormley’s idea of getting people to stand for an hour each on the plinth, in a continuous 24-hour cycle, was selected after models of the four proposals were displayed in the nearby National Gallery. So it was popular before it began, and that popularity has not diminished. It has been widely celebrated as a democratic portrait of Britain in the 12st century.

  6. Proof, if any is still needed, that The Guardian’s tradition for misprints has nothing to do with hot lead type:

    Gormley’s idea of getting people to stand for an hour each on the plinth, in a continuous 24-hour cycle, was selected after models of the four proposals were displayed in the nearby National Gallery. So it was popular before it began, and that popularity has not diminished. It has been widely celebrated as a democratic portrait of Britain in the 12st century.

  7. Anyway it’s ‘The United States of America’. You would never say ‘the United Colors of Benetton’ are … It’s Benetton and America that count, not the colors or states.
    But if you just say “United States”, which is the usual usage, to me the important word is “States”, thus plural, though I accept that because they are “United”, it should be singular !
    And I would say the United Colors of Benetton are ..because I would unconsciously pick up Colors, not Benetton. And I would probably be wrong, but that is the unconscious working …

  8. mollymooly says:

    “in the 12st century” that’s 168lbs in US units.

  9. Martin: Thanks for the Google news archives tip. It turned up a load of stories I wrote and some about my father too.

  10. And I was taught that Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos are (in English) The United States of Mexico. So people saying “the States” make me a little crazy. On the other hand, I can speak of my husband (who married me [a - so-called - "Estado Unidensa"] and his friend who married a Brasilienne, as “Englishmen married to Americans”, and I do. But I’m not usually in America when I do it. Sadly, I am also made crazy by the fact that the Spanish assess North and South America as a single continent. But all of this is intuitive, perhaps.

  11. By using the singular, one can then refer to the USA as “she”, just as one does for other countries.

  12. Except for the fatherland himself, of course.

  13. Except for the fatherland himself, of course.

  14. Perhaps this debate is misguided, and is instead tied to a larger debate surrounding British Collective Plurals (http://www.languagehat.com/archives/003330.php).
    I’m an American but lived in Australia for 4 years. There, as is true with other Commonwealth nations, it is common to hear “Australia are winning the match” or “Telstra are a large phone company”.
    So it would seem the transition in history from “the United States are” to “the United States is” might be more related to the more general transition in American English that preferred the singular conjugation of “to go” over its plural form in these circumstances.

  15. Correction, not “to go” but “to be”.

  16. @Jeremy Thomas: I think the two phenomena are only coincidentally related to each other: Australians would still say “Australia is a nation located in the southern hemisphere”.

  17. John Emerson says:

    Referring to sports teams in the plural is a mannerism in Britain and apparently Australia, but I don’t believe it generalizes to anything else. It’s a bit similar to the “these United States” form, which doesn’t generalize either, but I don’t think that there’s any connection between them.
    “These United States” was LBJ’s phrase, and I think that it’s a Southern or Texan mannerism.

  18. I think Australians would say “Australia is a nation” because the predicate nominative is singular. The British system, which obtains (in this regard) in Australia, would be to say “Australia are trailing England by two hundred runs” (possibly no matter what the actual score was/were).

    But I think that, if the collective (British) plural / (American) singular contrast is directly related to the plurality/unity of “the States”, that connection would have to go back to the American War for Independence and follow American political history with respect to the perpetually vexing problem of states’ rights.
    The tension between Federal unity and each state’s independence from that unity might have everything to do with, for example, Southerners tending to refer to “these United States are“, and their cultural (and sometime-military) opponents preferring “the United States is“. What I label a “cultural” conflict followed geography pretty closely (though not with iron uniformity) for the near-century while the conflict was dominated by the political-economic clash between slave and free states, but “states’ rights” in the 20th century means much less clearly geographic quarrels, quarrels which exist in every state. Two hot-button (as we say) examples: gun-possession ‘rights’ and control of one’s uterus vs. compulsory incubation. A “conservative” person might prefer the implications connoted by “these United States are” in the cases of Second Amendment and abortion arguments, while a “progressive” might choose the Federal (legal) superposition implied by “the United States is”.
    In the South, the American Civil War is still strongly referred to as “the War between the States”. (I mean that, in casual conversation in the South, people will actually correct you if you refer to “the Civil War”.) LBJ was a Texan who stayed used to talking like a Texan and to Texans; it’s no surprise, in the context of the then-physically violent battles over states’ rights, that a Texan- even a “liberal” Texan- would talk of “these United States are”.
    That this “states’ rights” difference could be meticulously connected to the British “are” / American “is” distinction . . . ??
    -
    A reminder: when an American says “state”, there’s a fair chance that she or he is not referring to ‘nation’, ‘government’, or ‘ethnos‘, but rather to the human-drawn lines that divide maps of the continental US into 48 sections, for example, ‘Tennessee’.

  19. Referring to sports teams in the plural is a mannerism in Britain and apparently Australia
    Collective plurals also extend to more generalized groups: “the committee is” (American) vs. “the committee are” (British). You should be able to google a lot of ESL examples of British vs. American collective plurals, it’s a favorite subject for test prep courses.
    The Readers Digest, generally regarded as a politically conservative family publication, has a regular feature of humorous anecdotes called “Life in These United States”.

  20. David Marjanović says:

    There’s a general tendency in English to take the semantics of a situation into account, giving us phenomena like the police are. (This has always baffled me, because it’s simply not done in… probably the entire rest of Indo-European.)
    Now, putting semantics into grammar always leads to uncertainty and diversity: should the United States be considered a single entity, and should it matter that one committee, corporation or team consists of several people? All possible answers seem to occur in the wild.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    I thought these United States is only used as a deliberate archaism, often for somewhat humorous purposes?

  22. I thought these United States is only used as a deliberate archaism, often for somewhat humorous purposes?
    Quite correct, and I think it’s usually associated with the Reader’s Digest, as Nijma suggests.

  23. I thought that ‘the police are’ was a unique example, in the US, of a collective noun ordinarily being plural in grammatical number. I thought this special case evolved because of the awkwardness of speaking the plural of ‘police’- “polices” (the noun, not the verb). “The polices of New York and Los Angeles have similar problems.” Naw, that “-sez” sound sounds ‘wrong’, so it’s avoided– I thought that was how the rule for “police are” (for cops from only one force) came into use.

    “[S]hould the United States be considered a single entity[?]”
    That’s a question with a long, politically fraught answer, shortenable (albeit not helpfully) to: ‘sometimes yes, sometimes no.’
    -
    “[S]hould it matter that one committee, corporation or team consists of several people?”
    That’s a different question.
    It has to do with whether one systematically (or habitually) gives priority to the universal (or general or whole) or to the particular (or specific or part) in cases when one is forced (by one’s ‘system’ or, simply, by ad hoc practicality) not to take into account their equiprimordiality.
    It’s characteristic of British culture to privilege the perspective of the concrete particular, the political individual, and the mechanical part. I think that for the British to say ‘the team are’ or ‘the government are’ makes perfect cultural-anthropological sense, because the collective plural emphasizes (well, slightly) the fact that teams and governments are composed of ultimately unamalgamatable units (each person).

  24. Now, putting semantics into grammar always leads to uncertainty and diversity: should the United States be considered a single entity,
    Yes. The way ESL textbooks teach names of countries, the name of the country where I live is “the United States”. Similar single entity countries with plural sounding names are “the Netherlands” and “the Philippines”. Islands in general also have this property: “the Canary Islands”.
    giving us phenomena like the police are
    Spanish differentiates between the police singular and plural with gender. El policía is one police officer (not sure what they do with female officers), while la policía is the police force.

  25. “Estadounidensa” is incorrect, but according to Google people actually use it. It should be “una estadounidense”. It’s not as wrong as “americana” as a synonym for US citizen though.
    policewoman = mujer policía

  26. David M. (and language hat), “deliberate archaism” sounds right, although people like politicians wouldn’t be ‘deliberately archaic’ in the ways or for the reasons, say, that Spenser was; they’d be using something they thought sounded old-fashioned in order to appeal in a decidedly non-literary way to a politically ‘conservative’ ethos or bundle of social commitments. As, in general, with the case of Reader’s Digest.
    But I don’t think you’re right about “humorous”. The bits in the These United States column are intended to be amusing, sure, but (one example) I’ve got an atlas published by the Reader’s Digest (3rd printing, ’69) that’s called: “These United States”. I see nothing comical in the title or the book. I would call this usage ceremonial, and I’d doubt strongly that Reader’s Digest would venture to mock in any way what they consider ‘patriotism’.

  27. Deadgod: It’s true that the states of the U.S. aren’t as sovereign as, say, the nations forming the E.U. But despite certain original surrenders (of monetary and foreign policy, notably) as well as all encroachments of federal power in the last two centuries (some entirely justified, some not), U.S. states remain sovereign entities with (almost) omnicompetent legislatures and courts. (Thanks to a written constitution and judicial review, no American legislature is as omnicompetent as, say, the U.K. Parliament, whose subjects have no rights their legislature is bound to respect — except through the E.U.)
    Anyhow, I think it’s cool how Brits can say things like “England is undefeated, though England are defeated regularly.” (Though that leaves out the Anglo-Norman Ascendancy.)

  28. I thought that ‘the police are’ was a unique example, in the US, of a collective noun ordinarily being plural in grammatical number. I thought this special case evolved because of the awkwardness of speaking the plural of ‘police’- “polices” (the noun, not the verb). “The polices of New York and Los Angeles have similar problems.” Naw, that “-sez” sound sounds ‘wrong’, so it’s avoided– I thought that was how the rule for “police are” (for cops from only one force) came into use.
    I wondered about the influence of the “s” sound, too, but on reflection I don’t buy it, because there are so many cases where that “-sez” doesn’t sound wrong; a case in point is “police forces”.
    Here’s an experiment. I can say:
    “The army was on the spot within minutes. They took care of everything.”
    For “the army” substitute “the FBI” or “security” or “the police force” or “a platoon of soldiers” and it’s still the way I’d say it, including the plural verb in the second sentence. But substitute “the police” and I want a plural in the first sentence.
    I don’t know what this demonstrates, exactly.
    -
    On the subject of a noun referring to an organized body versus a noun referring to a member of that body:
    A member of the army is a soldier. A member of the navy is a sailor. I don’t think there’s a one-word term for a member of the (US) air force. I think it was Bill Clinton who offended people by getting this wrong, saying “airman” for an Air Force officer when in fact it refers to someone of lower rank. A marine is a member of the marines, or should I say the Marine Corps. Maybe a member of the Coast Guard is a guardsman, I don’t know. (In “The Russians are Coming” a Russian tries saying “coastal guardians”.)
    A nine-year old friend of mine is looking forward to being a “patrol” at her school next year, by which she means a member of the safety patrol. (Selected students in their final year get to don a special belt, and maybe a badge, and help to herd the others in and out of the building.) I remember the same phenomenon from my own childhood, including the fact that the word “patrol” was used, at least by the kids, for “member of the patrol”. Understandable, since no other short way to say it is offered.
    I think that many people, at least as children, get the idea that a “troop” is a soldier, or some kind of soldier — understandable, given expressions like “bring in the troops”, or figuratively “okay, troops, let’s go!” Nor is “trooper” quite the word you want to use instead of “troop” for a single member of the troops, because it has other connotations.
    -
    The fact that “police” is construed as plural reminds me of the word “people” and the peculiar fact that its main job nowadays is to serve as almost a plural for “person”. Isn’t it odd, and unfortunate, that English has no basic normal good old word for “human being”?

  29. marie-lucie says:

    empty: troop(s): I don’t know whether this is official (Pentagon) usage, but US newspapers routinely talk about “3000 troops”, not “3000 soldiers/marines/etc”. Last year the Onion had a spoof about “a troop” (consisting of one soldier) being sent to some faraway spot.
    Isn’t it odd, and unfortunate, that English has no basic normal good old word for “human being”?
    The word “man” used to fill that spot. The word “woman” was once wifman, literally “woman-person”. The word wif (with a long vowel like ee nowadays), later wife, meant simply ‘woman’ (as in housewife, fishwife or midwife), not just ‘woman in relation to the man she is married to’.
    Years ago (in the 60′s) I was asked: “Are you a Frenchman?” I replied “I am not a man” – “You don’t have to be a man to be a Frenchman!” (the word “Frenchman” was not pronounced like the two words “French man” which could not have applied to a woman).

  30. Residents of the New World are without gender — Canadians, Uruguayans, Jamaicans, Brazilians etc. — as are Britons, Hungarians, Czechs, New-Zealanders, Mongols, Spaniards, Finns and other Skandinavians. In my experience, a joke about an Englishman, an Irishman, a Scotsman and a Frenchman would not be about women.

  31. Residents of the New World are without gender — Canadians, Uruguayans, Jamaicans, Brazilians etc. — as are Britons, Hungarians, Czechs, New-Zealanders, Mongols, Spaniards, Finns and other Skandinavians. In my experience, a joke about an Englishman, an Irishman, a Scotsman and a Frenchman would not be about women.

  32. empty, I should have been more precise about what sounds (to me) like a phonetic awkwardness dictating a plural form. I meant “eesez”, “polices“- which sounds ok as a verb but not a noun. You could then say, “Pieces?? Perfectly normal.” But then I’d say, “Yeah, ‘pieces are‘. Not a perfectly useful parallel.”
    Anyway, I’ve not seen a reason for the US avoidance of ‘(collective) police is’. Maybe that’s it!- “The police is polices.”
    -
    Your “experiment”- demonstrating the discomfort American speakers of English have saying “police is”, is just what I’m (amateurishly) trying to puzzle together. I still haven’t been able to think of another US collective plural, though where there’s one exception . . .

    I don’t think Clinton was actually wrong about “airman”.
    An Air Force officer insulted by the term more than a general insulted by being called a ‘soldier’? That sounds like eight years of robotic criticism of Clinton that’s being re-played today in the spammy criticism of everything ‘Obama’ from content-less points on the political compass.

    “Person” is the English “basic normal good old word for ‘human being’”- except it’s “perchild/perchildren“.

  33. Whoa, I’m surprised my gaffe hasn’t been ‘addressed’ yet.
    I suddenly realized, while thinking about something completely else, that you’re right, empty, about “airman” being the wrong way to talk to an Air Force officer. It’s a rank, “airman, first class” (eg.), like “private, first class” in the Army, and, I think, “seaman, first class” (?) in the Navy.
    There isn’t, that I can think of, a generic term for a ‘flyboy’ like “soldier” and “sailor”. Hoplites haven’t been aloft for long enough for a term to evolve?
    I still think that particular jolt of hysteria against Clinton for making this mistake would have had little to do with any genuine offense taken by a military man or woman.

  34. Raping and pillaging goes so much smoother when your army has first-class privates.

  35. Raping and pillaging goes so much smoother when your army has first-class privates.

  36. I’m guessing that re-populating the army goes more smoothly when features first-class privates.

  37. Re-populating the army itself goes more smoothly when it features first-class privates.
    (Typing 101, exercise #37)

  38. “Person” is the English “basic normal good old word for ‘human being’”- except it’s “perchild/perchildren”.
    Very funny. But “person” doesn’t meet my needs. I think that it is handicapped somewhat by its associations with “persona”, “personality”, “personal”, and “on his person”. To the extent that it suggests separateness and the qualities of an individual, it is unavailable to point to shared humanity. To the extent that it suggests an outward form or a face that one shows to thesure, world, it misses out on the inner (wo)man. Oh, we make do with it as an all-purpose word for one of our kind, but I don’t think it’s right to have to just make do.
    I thought of this when I came across a line by Rumi, as rendered in English by Coleman Barks:
    “Gamble everything on love, if you are a true human being.”
    Certainly “person” would not work for me here. Don’t you just wish you had the option of the basic normal good old sexless “man” here?
    I’m sure there are people in Hatland who can tell me something interesting about the original Farsi word.

  39. I’d say, ø, that, if you changed “true”, you’d get a phrase most English-speakers- well, most American English-speakers, would ‘feel’: a real person.
    Put a bit of emphasis on “person”: “You can talk to her. She’s irritable, but if you’ve got a problem, she can be a real person about it [as opposed to a theatrical tantrum-thrower].” Or: “He can’t be trusted; he’s just not a real person.” [He's an office, or some kind of, politician.]
    In this way, “person” can be like the Yiddish (?) version of Mensch, which I think you’re looking for.

  40. “Person” in that context just sounds to me like a feeble substitute for mensch. I agree with Ø: English feels the want of a gender-neutral word.

  41. I do agree that “real person” can almost do the job.
    The Yiddish mensch or mensh does the job too well, in a way, because it means something more like “true human being” or “real person” whereas I want a word that means “person” or “human being”, to which I can add my own adjective.
    Not that I am trying to translate poetry (from English to English) or anything. I’m just shooting my mouth off, tilting at molehills, setting up straw persons so I can knock them down …

  42. marie-lucie says:

    But German Mensch does not have the Yiddish connotation, or does it? Its adjective form menschlich just means “human”.

  43. What’s wrong with using the adjective ‘human’ as a noun? A human. The human. Works in science fiction all the time.

  44. German Mensch does not have the Yiddish connotation
    I believe you’re right, m-l. What I was wishing for was a word corresponding to the German “Mensch”.
    ‘human’ as a noun
    Sorry, outside sci-fi or Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” it rings a little false for me.
    No, I refuse to be satisfied by any of these excellent suggestions, or any others. It’s a matter of principle; I’m striking a pose here.

  45. The translation (surely “substitute” is the wrong word) for the Yiddish Mensch into English would be ‘real person’, which was why I said “the Yiddish Mensch”. Which is what I thought Barks was after in his version of the Rumi verse.
    “Person” by itself would be like the German das Mensch, an everyday, geneutral word meaning ‘one human being’, regularly pluralized as “people”. “I can see one person on the street and four people in the car.” (Age, sex, nationality, skin hue(s), gang affiliation, biggest movie-star crush, no-tell motel pseudonym not specified in any of the five cases.)
    ø, “person” might sound weak as a “basic normal good old word for ‘human being’”, maybe because English is so much less gendered otherwise than, say, German (so where there is gender in English, that aspect stands out, as with “man” and “guy”), but, in ordinary conversation, it often does the job. As allzumenschliche persons and perdaughters would uebermenschlich agree.

  46. in ordinary conversation, it often does the job
    It does? How often do you hear “There’s a person at work I really dislike” or “Do you see that person over there?” The word “person” is on a far more formal and abstract level than Mensch or Russian человек or any of the comparable words for the concept. English does not have a normal, everyday, conversational word for it, which is what Ø and I are complaining about. Sure, there’s a workaround, but that’s cold comfort.

  47. It’s funny the way ‘an individual’ has been recently adopted by police spokespeople to mean ‘a suspected baddy’.

  48. It’s funny the way ‘an individual’ has been recently adopted by police spokespeople to mean ‘a suspected baddy’.

  49. Yes, I was thinking of “individual”, too.
    I recall that in a late Dorothy L. Sayers’ novel the very eventful Vane-Wimsey honeymoon is interrupted one more time when the Jeeves-like Bunter states that there is “an individual” at the door. “What sort of individual, Bunter?” “A financial individual, my lord.”

  50. Actually I don’t think человек is really gender neutral, just because Russia is not that kind of culture. Technically it is, of course, but in my head I assume the speaker is referring to a man unless there’s evidence to the contrary. That may be just latent sexism in my own mind but the fact that expressions like “молодой человек” are always used for boys/men, never girls, tends to reinforce the male association. Also the fact that Russians can relate offensive misogynistic jokes such as “Существует предание, что в древности, на одном из Вселенских Соборов был поднят вопрос: “А человек ли женщина?” И после долгих дебатов большинством в один голос было принято решение, что женщина, все-таки, человек…”
    “Person” does have the advantage of being purely gender neutral. Actually the phrase “There’s a person at work I really dislike” doesn’t strike me as overly formal – young people actually talk like that these days. My impression is that “person” is slowly gaining ground in American English.
    And sorry to be a pedant, deargod, but it’s Der Mensch. “Das Mensch” is Frankish dialect for, oddly, a young woman. So it’s important to keep those genders straight.

  51. I suggest sentient organism. “There’s a sentient organism at work I really dislike” doesn’t point the finger in a discriminatory way, but you know no one’s discussing germs.

  52. I suggest sentient organism. “There’s a sentient organism at work I really dislike” doesn’t point the finger in a discriminatory way, but you know no one’s discussing germs.

  53. young people actually talk like that these days. My impression is that “person” is slowly gaining ground in American English.
    Ah, well, then. I am out of touch with what Kids These Days are saying, so I’ll take your word for it. (As a codger, I dislike this development; as a linguist manqué, I merely note it.)

  54. Oh, let’s not pass up an opportunity to mention Dave Barry’s “Ask Mr. Language Person
    “.

  55. vanya, yes, der Mensch. Not “pedantic” of you at all! Just a pretty bad botch on my part.
    -
    “There’s a person at work I dislike.” Exactly what I’d say, if I wanted, from the get-go, for it to be clear that my “dislike” (or ‘like’) were uncluttered and unaccelerated by romantic attachment/rivalry of any kind. My next sentence might be, “He or She [specifically] is constantly complaining etc.”
    In indicating (in words) “that person over there”, I’d be immediately gender-specific, probably with a pigeon-holing adjective and modifying phrase– but that specificity would be exactly the point!
    If the sex of a person is (temporarily) irrelevant or unknown, “person” does work well to indicate that it is- as would be relevant and known- a ‘person’.
    -
    I thought of “individual”, which works fine in some contexts (the military is another strong example).
    But there are a lot of contexts in which you’d actually say, “‘Individual’ what?”

  56. As a native speaker of Australian English, “There’s a person at work I really dislike” seems natural. Or “There’s someone at work I really dislike”. There was a band I really used to like called “The Sundays”. They had a song “A Certain Someone”:
    … yeah, if I could have anything in the world for free
    I wouldn’t share it with anyone else but me
    oh, except perhaps a certain someone
    oh, except perhaps a certain someone
    ooh, oh…

  57. “There’s someone at work I really dislike”
    Yes, this seems to me the natural way to say it in English. For me, anyway, “person” is just a little too formal for natural conversational use.

  58. “There’s _______ at work I really dislike”
    “Someone” (or “somebody”) works perfectly for me here, too.
    “A person” works, but not always perfectly; there is something about it that makes me slightly uncomfortable. I’m not sure that the word is “too formal”. One issue is gender-neutrality and the second-guessing that it can lead to: If I say “a person” instead of “a guy” or “a man” or “a bloke” or “a woman” or “a lady”, it may represent a recognition that the sex is irrelevant, but my not wanting to draw attention to the individual’s sex may not extend to wanting to draw attention to that irrelevance. “Someone” does not put me in this bind so much, because it carries less of the suggestion that I deliberately substituted a gender-neutral term for the one that came to mind first.
    -
    Two fairly random fictional examples of “person” used for a woman:
    There is the repeating line in a song in Guys and Dolls: “A person could develop a cold”.
    In Wodehouse, Jeeves on at least one occasion uses “young person” to refer to a young woman — a young woman considered (in a somewhat detached way) as an object of romantic interest for someone.
    -
    deadgod: As you see, I like your way of using a single little punctuation mark to subdivide a comment into very separate subcomments.

  59. There is the repeating line in a song in Guys and Dolls: “A person could develop a cold”.
    And that’s a perfect example of what a marked (in the linguistic sense) usage it is; it’s part of the character’s strongly characterized dialect, not something that a standard speaker would say.

  60. ‘Cove’ is a good one that my great-uncle in Australia used a lot. Hasn’t been used in England since WW2 or earlier, I imagine.

  61. marie-lucie says:

    “young person” to refer to a young woman
    Perhaps this reflects an influence from French? In French literature of the late 19th century, a teen-aged girl is often referred to as une jeune personne, a term which would not refer to a boy of the same age and seems more or less equivalent to young lady. The term seems to have been preferred to une jeune fille for a girl of marriageable age but still unmarried and a virgin: at the time, fille by itself, apart from meaning “daughter”, also had the connotation of “young woman of ill repute”, if not necessarily “prostitute”, so personne was neutral. Une jeune femme would normally imply that she is married. A jeune personne could be still too young to be likely to be married, but old enough to be included in the company of adults. The term disappeared at some point in the 20th century, it seems, as fille gradually lost its unsavoury connotations to mean just “girl”, but jeune fille and jeune femme were sharply distinguished when I was younger. Simone de Beauvoir’s book about her early years is called Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée “Memoirs of a proper young lady” (a title poorly translated as “Memoirs of a dutiful daughter”), no doubt in order to contrast her proper upbringing with her unconventional adult life.
    “cove”: isn’t that word restricted to a male, like “bloke”?

  62. “cove”: isn’t that word restricted to a male, like “bloke”?
    As far as I know, yes, but I’ll wait for those who have it in their dialect to respond.

  63. As far as I know, too: I took AJP’s mention of “cove” as an addition to the list in my
    “a person” instead of “a guy” or “a man” or “a bloke” or “a woman” or “a lady”
    rather than one more unisex term.

  64. marie-lucie says:

    I have never heard the word “cove”, but I have encountered it more than once in reading British detective novels, where the word unequivocally referred to a man, never to a woman or girl of any description.

  65. David Marjanović says:

    But German Mensch does not have the Yiddish connotation, or does it?

    Nope. Indeed, I can’t think of a way of expressing the Yiddish connotation in German at all.

    “Das Mensch” is Frankish dialect for, oddly, a young woman.

    Up to the late 18th or maybe 19th century or something, it seems to have been widespread geographically and to have meant “maid” (in the Victorian meaning – counterpart to “butler”, sort of). My grandmother (in Linz, Austria) used the plural, in -er rather than -en, to refer to the girls in my class, especially when they teased me, but the singular seems not to be in her (at least active) vocabulary. My generation (in Linz and Vienna), and apparently the previous one, did not (otherwise) know this word and instead used the comparable term for adults, Weiber, to refer to “the girls” and imply contempt.

  66. My great-uncle (and my father, now I come to think of it) only used ‘cove’ for men, like ‘bloke’ or ‘guy’. Apart from in Australia, like m-l I’ve only heard retired majors in detective stories use it. I think it was current in England about 1910, but it may be in Oscar Wilde or even Conan Doyle.

  67. I can’t stand it any longer, I see that I’m going to have to follow my own advice and buy the cds of the OED for $180, or whatever dreadful sum it was.

  68. I think it was current in England about 1910
    Bertie Wooster uses it.

  69. “cove”, from http://www.answers.com/cove?afid=TBarLookup&nafid=27

    cove2 (kōv) pronunciation
    n. Chiefly British

    A fellow; a man.

    [Probably from Romany kova, man.]

    but the new SOED says

    slang (esp. Austral.).M16 [Perh. f. Romany kova thing, person, or rel. to COFF v.] A fellow; a chap.

    Not sure what that M16 is doing in there.
    Oh, I see, the small capital M in front of a date means “middle”, middle 16th century I suppose.
    COFF, late middle English — via Scottish “coft” and probably Middle Dutch “coft” form of “cōpen”, meaning come in contact with — Buy or purchase.

  70. I’m not sure this “Romany kova thing, person” is correctly translated; my Glossary of Greek Romany gives “ková (M[asculine] pron[oun]) that (one), he; o yek palal o kova one after other, one by one; ko(v)a si mo pral he’s my brother; o kava si Evangeliako tšavo, o kova si Katinako tšavo.” Doesn’t sound like a noun to me, and thus seems a less likely source for cove.

  71. marie-lucie says:

    LH, I don’t know Romany, but the evolution from “man” to “someone” to “he” is not that far-fetched, since a similar evolution is attested in a number of languages. Look for instance at German man, the unstressed form of Mann ‘man’, which is used as an indefinite pronoun, and similarly French (l’)on from Old French (l’)hom, the unstressed form of (l’)homme ‘(the) man’ (that’s where the l’ comes from originally). Your glossary of Greek Romany is probably right for the contemporary language, but does not go into the ancestry and evolution of the word.
    Unlike pronouns meaning “I, me” and “you”, which tend to be extremely stable over centuries (barring some phonetic change also affecting other words of the language), the pronouns for the third person can be quite variable, since there are a number of other ways that a third person can be referred to – a pronoun is only used once the person has been identified (in words, or from the context of situation). So over the course of time, demonstratives (“that one”) or generic nouns (“man”) often lose their specific meanings to become third persons pronouns, sometimes alongside other pronouns, sometimes replacing them altogether.

  72. Some of the quotations for cove at Wordnik are from Borrow’s Lavengro and its sequel The Romany Rye, novels about gypsies written in the mid 19th century.

  73. I can’t find it, but I have a feeling that Toad uses the word ‘cove’ in The Wind in The Willows. Toad, of course, stole a gypsy caravan.

  74. No cove in The Wind in the Willows, thanks to Project Gutenberg.

    The “Yiddish sense of mensh” is extremely recent, probably early 20th century: before that mensh meant simply ‘person’, as in the proverb A mensh trakht un got lakht ‘Man plans, God laughs’. Indeed, to call someone zayn mensh was to say he was a subordinate or even a toady, like older English his man. One idea about how mensh got its highly positive sense is that it comes from German Menschlichkeit, a calque of humanitas, which is not mere human-ness.

  75. Yaron Matras lists the following Angloromani variants documented in his corpus: kavva, kovva, kowva, kuvva ‘(the) thing’ (substitute for a named object) < European Romani (o)kova ‘that’. The same word may also function as a pronoun (‘anything, everything’) in some expressions.

    European Romani dialects have a four-way deictic system, and two of the four terms have survived in Angloromani. The other one is duvva < ER (o)dova, used as a demonstrative adjective (‘this/that N’), a deictic referring to persons (‘this one’), or a sentence deictic (‘that’).

    Here are a few examples from Matras’s 2010 book:

    Mandi kom dovva chavvi but kek kom dovva chavvi.
    ‘I like this child but [I] don’t like that child.’

    I was gonna del duvva, I felt like morin’ him.
    ‘I was gonna hit this-one, I felt like killing him.’

    Kek kel kuvva akai!
    ‘Don’t do this-kind-of-thing/anything here!’

    This little rakli is asking me all these kuvvas and I don’t know what she’s manging.
    ‘This littele girl is asking me all these things and I don’t know what she’s asking.’

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