Ben Zimmer is interviewed by The Chicago Manual of Style about “the transformation and technologization of language”; it starts off with this question:

A favorite debate in the CMOS community is whether new word usages should be allowed, with classic examples of hopefully and literally. How do you think we should draw the line between common usage and Standard Written English? Are there cultural or academic checkpoints that a word must go through before making the transition?

Zimmer talks about the recency illusion, points out that Alexander Pope used literally the “wrong” way in 1708, and says that “in our schooling, we are constantly encouraged to think that there is only one right answer, which flies in the face of the flexibility and mutability of language.” All of which is true, and I wish I could think it would do some good, but the CMOS (which I use constantly in my professional life as a copyeditor and which is a superb reference for its central mission) enraged me a couple of editions ago when they cut short a promising trend toward good sense and outsourced their grammar section to Bryan A. Garner, the most reactionary usage maven currently working. By comparison with Garner, William Safire (alevasholem) was a wild-eyed linguistic radical. Frankly, I’m surprised the CMOS crowd took it into their heads to talk to a real live linguist; could it be that there is a dissident faction that may someday overthrow Garner and bring their grammar recommendations into the current century? A man can hope…


  1. Hear, hear. I strongly disapprove of Bryan Garner, his conservatism, his ugly library, his having written a book with Antonin Scalia and his pompous middle initial.

  2. des v bladet says

    Surely all Americans have a middle initial? Otherwise how would you know it was that Yngwie (“J”) Malmsteen?

  3. “technologization of language”: not a bad joke, I suppose.

  4. As long as your first & last name add up to more than two syllables, middle initials aren’t necessary. There’s no Language P. Hat, for example. If you feel the need to stretch it out, we have the modern option of double-barrelled married last names, but I don’t expect Garner to recognise something so controversial as that.

  5. I don’t understand how the number of syllables enters into it. David Anderson has more than two syllables, but I can understand why someone with that name might want to use a middle initial. As long as your name isn’t globally unique, then adding an initial helps with identification. Regardless, there’s no need to disrespect the naming conventions of other cultures.

  6. My mother had only two syllables until she married and she thought it was a huge disadvantage. I’ve never confused two people for want of a middle initial. As a citizen I don’t regard the United States as another culture and I will continue to criticise pompousness without feeling guilty about it.

  7. “Rufus T. Firefly.”

  8. Well, I’ll bet William J. Gedney the linguist and William G. Gedney the photographer would have been annoyed at receiving each other’s mail.

  9. Jesus H. Christ!

  10. I thought Zimmer had some good things to say about usage, particularly the bit about usage writers always playing catchup rather than holding the line.
    When Chicago added the chapter on grammar and usage, I had no idea who Garner was, but I was excited by the idea. And then I got my copy, flipped through it, and quickly realized how utterly unhelpful his chapter was. In the ten years since his chapter was added, I have not once found it useful in answering an editing question. And this is completely leaving aside the factual errors in the chapter and my problems with Garner’s general rhetorical bent.
    I doubt his chapter will be removed or replaced anytime soon. Based on this interaction with the Q&A staff, it seems that their disposition is to automatically defend Garner, not question him.

  11. As I’ve mentioned before, the middle initial of the baseball player J. D. Drew stands, in some sense, for “Drew”.

  12. I wouldn’t call Garner the most reactionary usage writer now working, but rather the most pernicious, specifically because he often hides his conservatism behind a veneer of disinterested sophistication. I came to be familiar with too many mavens of decades past — Simon, Bernstein, Stafford, Kilpatrick, et al. — to bother acquainting myself with the current crop; but surely there exists a prescriptivist, writing for some newspaper or magazine, for whom a sense of hopefully is not only wrong but also designates its user as illiterate. (If there isn’t, fantastic!) Garner, though no genius, is too smart for such a directly de haut en bas approach, making him all the more annoyingly influential.

  13. I think you should adopt a semi-American style, Crown.
    J ap Crown IV
    That sounds good.

  14. As long as your first & last name add up to more than two syllables, middle initials aren’t necessary
    My full name has two syllables and nothing in the middle, and I never found it a disadvantage until today, when, in registering for some online system, a pop-up informed me that I was obliged to enter a middle initial for my automatically generated username, and that if I failed to do so, one would be assigned to me at random. I left the field blank, and it gave me an F.

  15. My middle name is Raphael, and I don’t use it, though my name isn’t exactly common without it. Its spelling actually got me in trouble with a cop recently. Wait, I already told that story.

  16. Jimsal explains the problem with Garner’s work better than I did.
    Something interesting about initials: Norwegians called Bjørn (which means “bear”, as in Winnie the Pooh, and is a common first name) write Bj instead of just B.

  17. I am John Cowan socially and professionally, John W. Cowan to my bankers and other people who know me as a result of filling out forms, and John Woldemar Cowan on my books, to keep me disambiguated from other authors. As a consequence of the last, my first book The Complete Lojban Language has been dubbed the Codex Woldemar.

  18. John Woldemar Cowan on my books, to keep me disambiguated from other authors
    Good job Voldemort didn’t write any books, then.

  19. “Bj instead of just B” takes me off at a tangent. When last did you see those old abbreviations for Christian names: Wm, Thos, … and so on? And what about Edward: did it get “Ed”?

  20. I sometimes refer to the Doctor as “Sam: Johnson”, and my father (1904-93) signed his name “Thos. A. Cowan” (for Thomas Anthony).
    And as for that person, I insist on the mid lowness of my final vowel. “Famous ruler” is not “flight from death”. My grandfather (189?-1960), whose first name it was, was born in Russia and spoke Russian and German equally well: I wonder if his russophone friends called him Vladimir, which is cognate (or perhaps a borrowing).

  21. I only know “Waldemar” (from Christopher Isherwood).
    dearie, I was thinking the same. Thos Cooke may still be going, I don’t know. Chas is another.

  22. Trond Engen says

    John Woldemar Cowan is an anagram for A J O de Wohlman Crown. That faux obsession with the middle initial was a clue, the mentioning of Voldemort a giveaway.

  23. marie-lucie says

    I think that Thos, Chas and a few other such forms are/were used in cases where plain T or C would be ambiguous, especially if members of the same family had the same initial, like Thomas and Tobias, for instance, or Charles and Christopher, or if the last name was very common.

  24. Yes, I’m not so picky about the quality of my initial vowel: Waldemar or for that matter Valdemar are mere spelling variants.
    My father’s sibling group was (in order): Mary, John (who died young), Helen, Thomas (Tom), James (Jim), William (Bill), Edward (Ed), Joseph (Joe), and Margaret (Nonnie; she may have been Margaret Honoria). So no other Ts. I assume that “Anthony” was a confirmation name; like most Americans, he pronounced it with /θ/. His children in order are Mary, Anthony (Tony), James (Jim), Sara, and John.
    And as for de Wohlman, it’s absurd. D’ Wholeman would be better even.

  25. Trond Engen says

    Bj. for Bjørn isn’t that usual, I think, but Kr./Chr. for Kristian/Christian or Kristoffer/Christoffer and Fr. for Fredrik are the only way, and Th. for names starting with Theo- or Thor- is almost as common. But writing Tr. for Trond would feel pretentious.

  26. Trond Engen says

    Dammit, I tried to get something out of “whole man”.

  27. David Marjanović says

    Wait, I already told that story.


    When last did you see those old abbreviations for Christian names: Wm, Thos, … and so on?

    Also existed in German: Joh. and Jos. for Johann & Josef. Extremely common 100 years ago, now extinct for decades – though unabbreviated Johannes has made a comeback.
    Indeed, for a few years there were two in my class. One got to usurp the traditional Hungarian-based Viennese nickname for Josef, Joschi – that’s [ˈjoʃɪ] with short [ʃ] to approximate the [ʒ] of József [ˈjoːʒæf]. The other remained at full length.

    Vladimir, which is cognate (or perhaps a borrowing)

    Could be a reanalyzed borrowing either way, but not a complete cognate: the -mar part ought to correspond to -mer in Russian, not -mir, and the meanings are somewhat off, too (“famous” vs. “village community, peace, world”).

  28. Wikipedia gives abbreviations for the standard set of Latin masculine praenomina, varying from M. for Marcus to Sert. for Sertor. A few had no standard abbreviation.
    By the way, Krune, the lack of an Oxford comma in your first comment gives Reading Law not two authors but three, one of them a mere letter.
    I suspect that Walter H. Waggoner, the reporter, used a middle initial to make his name less jingly.

  29. David Marjanović says

    Extremely common

    I mean the names (and therefore their abbreviations).

  30. By “mid lowness” I meant, of course, “unrounded low backness”. What’s-His-Name has low-mid front (AmE) or central (BrE) diphthongness.
    David: James told his middle name story here.
    The official name of Thomas Cook (not Cooke) has apparently always been Thomas Cook, except while it was Thomas Cook & Son, but “Thos. Cook” did appear on their letterhead.

  31. John, “Thos Cook” (no E) is how I remember seeing it when I was young, though it may have been on advertising.
    Trond, I mentioned it because I used to work with a Bjørn who signed his name Bj, and then there are the Bjørn Dæhlie labels.
    John, commas are one of my worst things. If the Oxford comma were my only problem, I would be a happy man.

  32. Trond Engen says

    AJP: I don’t mean to say that Bj. is marginal, just that I don’t think it’s the most common way of doing it.
    I can’t do commas either. Well, I can place them by ear in a sort of impressionist way, but the rules are the devil’s invention.

  33. Trond Engen says

    I think the first attestations of Vladimir/Valdemar speaks for a Slavic origin. But the transmission happened at a time when enough people were bilingual for the systematic correspondences grad/gard breg/berg etc. to lead to folk-etymologies.

  34. David Marjanović says

    James told his middle name story here.


    the transmission happened at a time when enough people were bilingual for the systematic correspondences grad/gard breg/berg etc. to lead to folk-etymologies

    Thought so.

  35. James told his middle name story here.

    Yes, thanks for tracking that down for David, as I would have done if I’d been around. I hope it was worthwhile, for all involved.

  36. mollymooly says

    “When last did you see those old abbreviations for Christian names: Wm, Thos?”
    They were used in Irish telephone directories into the 1990s.

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