Epithets: The Case of -o.

I wrote about Glossographia a decade ago; it’s “a blog dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of language from a social scientific perspective,” run by Stephen Chrisomalis, a linguistic anthropologist and cognitive anthropologist at Wayne State University in Detroit. I was recently surprised and pleased to discover it’s still a going concern, and I thought I’d pass on the post Epithets in contemporary English: the case of -o:

Recently over on the social media hellsite, I offered the following puzzle:

What do the following words have in common? SICK, WINE, RANDOM, WEIRD?

The answer, which a couple people got, is that they all are used to form negative epithets ending in -o. This morpheme is actually somewhat productive: pinko, weirdo, wino, dumbo, sicko, wacko, lesbo, fatso, rando, lameo, maybe also psycho, pedo, and narco if you don’t analyze them as abbreviations.

There are of course a bunch of other words formed using -o as a suffix that aren’t insulting nouns: ammo, camo, repo, demo, aggro, combo, promo, etc. Again, some of these are analyzable as shortenings but others, like ammo for ammunition, have something else going on. But these are different insofar as the role of the -o is not to create a noun describing a person.

Having looked around a while, I can’t find a single one of these epithets ending in -o that’s positive or even neutral. You can’t describe a smart person as smarto or a fun person as a funno (I think?).

The Google Ngram chart for these forms shows them to be largely a late 20th-century phenomenon; wino is the earliest and most popular through the early 90s, now overtaken by far by weirdo, but most of these words seem to emerge in the 1980s or later […]

I think little mini-word classes like these are interesting in that they show linguistic change and productivity on a small scale and in a way that doesn’t really show up in reference grammars and dictionaries. They’re a little aesthetically rich fragment of English informal speech that really, all languages have, but don’t get well-captured in some kinds of formal analysis. And as a language weirdo – or wordo? – I think that’s pretty cool.

So do I. (You can see a Google Ngram chart at the link.)


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    Of the examples he gives, some are in my lexicon but others aren’t. That includes my passive lexicon, as in I don’t think I’ve personally called anyone “fatso” or “lesbo” recently, but I would find it unremarkable if someone else (if that someone were a speaker whose politics and/or general level of politeness would not make it surprising) did. I don’t know if there’s a pattern to it (generational cohort?), but “dumbo” (other than as a proper name for a specific cartoon elephant) sounds unfamiliar to my ear as does “lameo.” “Rando” is sort of borderline; it sounds weird to my ear but I have a vague half-impression that it might be Something the Young People Say? “Dumbo” maybe raises one interesting issue, i.e. is the productivity of this pattern to some degree constrained or blocked when you already have an existing and widely-used pejorative (such as “dummy”) from the same root?

    On further reflection “lesbo” in particular feels somewhat dated to my ear. Hard to know how much of that is the dramatic reduction in the social acceptability of pejorative references to the group in question versus changing lexical fashions among the shrinking percentage of the population who are still in the market for pejoratives in that context. Or maybe my impression of datedness is unreliable, of course. The chart your source made from the google n-gram data is a bit hard to follow without blowing it up to a larger size than my computer can seem to manage, but it looks like “lesbo” is one of the items in recent decline although not with a very steep slope of decline. And of course that sort of decline doesn’t answer my question above about the effect of overall decline of pejoratives for that referent versus shifting fashions in which pejoratives are used.

  2. Damon Runyon, Baseball Hattie: “…cannot possibly be any worse married than he is single-o.” (published in the 1930s).

    Apart from these are 1950’s gimmick (q.v.) -o terms. Of these my favorite were William Castle’s: Emergo, Percepto, and, best, Illusion-o.

  3. PlasticPaddy says

    bureau-a high-class Scots accent
    burro-a low class Scots accent
    fango-a tooth
    panto-a gasp after racing around the stage in a silly costume

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    There’s a certain usage in the Antique Folk Song register of English of seemingly gratuitous suffixed -o’s, which may be unrelated but could maybe interact with this phenomenon?

    E.g. from the traditional song associated with the traditional May Day festivities in Padstow, Cornwall:

    Oh where is King George? Oh where is he-o?
    He’s out in his longboat, all on the salt sea-o.
    Up flies the kite, down falls the lark-o.
    Aunt Ursula Birdwood she has an old ewe,
    And she died in her own park-o.

    Or as simple as:

    Day-o, day-o, daylight come and me wan’ go home.

  5. Other unflattering Runyon terms: crumbo, trambo, ginzo, from crumb, tramp, Guinea. Also chromo, from chromolithograph, an early form of color postcard, but in the context meaning someone looks ancient.

    Most of the “device” -o terms (magneto, chromo, radio) started out as adjectives. I wonder if that’s what started the derogatory terms, too (like homo; which, incidentally, became in Hebrew the neutral, normative term for ‘gay’, alongside the ironic plural kehila ‘congregation’).

  6. “Rando” is sort of borderline; it sounds weird to my ear but I have a vague half-impression that it might be Something the Young People Say?

    All the words you mention seem entirely ordinary to this Gen X American. Dumbo isn’t one I’ve personally used a lot, but lame-o (I’d hyphenate it) was one of the schoolyard epithets of choice in my formative years. Rando is decidedly of more recent vintage, but I’ve certainly heard it and used it for at least a decade, maybe longer.

  7. I’ve seen chromo a fair amount (in old material, to be sure). It goes back quite a ways; the first OED cite is 1874 (F. Leslie’s Illustr. Newspr. 10 Oct. 79 Selling our new maps, pictures, chromos), but the entry hasn’t been fully updated since 1889.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    Thicko is another. Is it non-US?

    Boyo is not pejorative, at least not necessarily. It looks like a rather different phenomenon, though.

  9. The Google Ngram is misleading because it records only printed/written/digital instances, and doesn’t include all possible sources, especially newspapers.I suspect that many of these were in oral circulation and newspaper use long before showing up in print. (I think newspapers, being somewhat less formal than other forms of publication, tend to be the first to pick up usages that are gaining currency.) As an example: The Ngram shows “weirdo” rising steeply from nearly zero starting about 1965. But, via a newspapers.com search, beginning in 1932 “Weirdo the Magician” was performing at birthday parties in Sydney, Australia. “Wacko” begins to rise in the Ngram in 1980, but there was a British TV sitcom called Whack-O starting in 1956, and in 1970 an Oklahoma newspaper reports about a macaw named Wacko.

  10. I’ve never heard thicko until now.

    Oh, and a dishonorable mention to the song Kinko the Clown (extreme tastelessness warning), a mainstay of the Dr. Demento Show from the ’70s onward.

  11. In the “devices” category, add Wham-O (founded 1948), popularizers and trademarkers of the Hula Hoop, the Frisbee, the Super Ball, and other such.

  12. In Australia Communists are called “Commo’s”. And it goes back much earlier than the late 80s. (I must say I find “Commie” unbearably cute compared with “Commo”.) Another is “reffo”, an offensive Australian term for “refugee”, now pretty defunct.

    Also, “yobbo” is missing.

  13. I didn’t find any of the list surprising. I’ve probably used most of them at some time or other, before I realized how bad/awful/stupid they are. (I don’t *think* I still use any of them, but I’m not getting younger and the brain, it does slip some.) But I grew up in the 50s in Central Texas, and we were much less socially aware then.

  14. Is abbo considered less or more derogatory today than in the past?

    (On “Commie” cuteness, see discussion from 2015.)

  15. I forgot “smoke-oh” (break for a smoke, workman’s morning or afternoon tea), “garbo” (garbage man), and “arvo” (afternoon). Obviously Australia has (or had) a slightly different ecology from the US.

    I forgot that thread, which has a few more. And yes, Abo is derogatory. Even “Aborigine” is being replaced by “indigenous (people)”.

  16. See also, Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, and Zeppo — names adopted by the Marx gang around 1915. Certainly an indication that -o was already a thing early in the 20th C.

  17. Ab0 (aborigine) is definitely offensive, I’d say as much as the N word in the USA.

    Another insulting -o word is lezo for lesbian.

  18. Depending on context, gonzo can be approbative.

    And Rinso, the soap powder, was presumably meant to evoke a positive feeling in the customer.

  19. Thanks! One point that I want to emphasize is that there are lots of different types of the morpheme -o used word-finally in English – some of them serve very different functions than the pejorative one. Australian English is full of them (as noted by several commenters) that aren’t pejorative at all. And while, of course, Ngrams are not representative of all language, they do illustrate the point that these pejorative terms don’t all develop at once. I agree with those who note that rando and lameo seem quite a bit newer, while w(h)acko and weirdo may be older. Green’s Dictionary of Slang has citations for some of these but a detailed search would clearly antedate many of them.

  20. John Emerson says

    I am trying to fit jello into this paradigm. I grew up with it, but I don’t eat it any more and am fully aware that many think of it as a pejorative food. But we know that jello was named by its marketers.

    What should we think? Is jello perhaps from Opposite World, where good is bad and badness is highly prized? Was I once living in Opposite World? What does this say about who I am today?

  21. Christopher Culver says

    “I can’t find a single one of these epithets ending in -o that’s positive or even neutral.”

    What about Beatnik slang daddy-o?

  22. More Australian examples:
    aspro (associate professor), bottle-oh, compo, Darlo
    galvo, journo, milko, muso, Nasho, rabbit-oh
    rego, Salvo, Susso

    Wasn’t there a discussion a while back about “lying doggo”?

  23. Michael Vnuk says

    A few positive words I (an Australia) have heard (not necessarily all from Australia) include: ‘boffo’, ‘whizzo’, ‘yummo’, ‘exo’. However, these may not be specifically what the author was thinking about. I’m inclined to think that ‘-o’ has multiple reasons for being used. It certainly gets used for names (given names and family names) in Australia, eg ‘Deano’, ‘Johnno’, ‘Simmo’, ‘Thommo’, ‘Dave-o’.

  24. Clearly, these are all derived from the Georgian vocative form, which is most commonly -o (but may also be -v). Everyone remembers The Knight in the Panther Skin being basically all the English-speaking world could talk about precisely whenever it is that Google n-grams says these words first started appearing.

    As for positive uses, doggo is a recent internet term for (particularly adorable) dogs. Not sure if this is the same doggo maihc refers to though. Friendo is also the name of a walrus in Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples epic Saga comic book series.

  25. Boffo and socko were used in show business talk in the U.S.

    Whizzo ~ wizzo is supposed to be British (per Green’s dictionary), but I seem to remember it in some US sources too.

    Kinko’s (a US chain of copy shops, now absorbed by FedEx) was named for its founder, Paul Orfalea (1947–), nicknamed “Kinko” for his curly hair.

  26. I’m surprised that no one has brought up kiddo.

  27. The whole story, from Green’s Dictionary of Slang. He divides them as follows:

    1. Terms of address. Incl. neutral ones like kiddo, boyo, bucko, but also many like punko, cretino, etc.
    2. Nouns from adjectives, many derogatory: dullo, stupid-o, deform-o.
    3. Australian shortened nouns.
    4. Australian shortened adjectives.
    5. “Extended adjectives”: keeno, neato, perfecto, but later on the negative side.
    6. Shortened forms: aggro, combo.
    7. “meaningless ending”: Father-o, Larry-o, on their ownio.

    Most of these got going in the 20th century, but Green includes “The pox of such antick, lisping, affecting fantasticoes, these new tuners of accents!”, from Romeo and Juliet.

    Some of these, like perfecto, are no doubt inspired by Spanish and maybe Italian.

  28. John McWhorter did a podcast on -o words earlier this year: Sicko, Whacko, Weirdo. He traces them to an early comic strip, Knocko the Monk, which started in 1904 and had a string of characters named Sherlocko, Henpecko, Coldfeeto, Rhymo, etc. Apparently this started a fad in vaudeville, which is how the Marx Brothers got their names. Then he runs down a list of coinages: blotto, 1917; bozo, 1920; stinko, 1924; fatso, 1944 (don’t know where he got these dates, but they’re close to the first quotations in Green’s Dictionary). And he could’ve added Bizarro, who first appeared in Superboy comics, 1958. Looks like an all-of-the-20th-century phenomenon.

  29. The author ofthe comic apparently gave the Marx brothers their nicknames.

    Another australian noun: derro, from derelict.

  30. Lars Mathiesen says

    I can confirm Hi friendo! in the wild, greeting new users in a chatroom. (However, there have been indications that the main perpetrator, otherwise sane and sensible and not burned out of his home even once, may in fact be … Australian!)

  31. “Friendo” I know only from its ironic use by Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men”.

    wiktionary Category:English words suffixed with -o

    Even “Aborigine” is being replaced by “indigenous (people)”.

    “Australian Aborigines” is replaced by “Aboriginal Australians”, I presume on basis that adjectives are less offensive than nouns. “Indigenous Australians” is in principle a distinct term encompassing both Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, but there are so few of the latter in most of Australia that the distinction is often moot.

  32. Don’t forget Frankish names in the 9-th century: Adzo, Atto, Berto, Dodo, Siggo, Abbo, Boso, Ello, Ringo, Tonto, Arpo, Batto, Bekko, Bippo, Dozo, Faffo, Gibbo, Scatto, Swifo, Tatto, Wizzo. All from The Means of Naming, A social and cultural history of personal naming in western Europe, by Stephen Wilson, ISBN 1-85728-245-0.

  33. mollymooly says: “Australian Aborigines” is replaced by “Aboriginal Australians”

    actually replaced by “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders”

  34. Graham Asher says

    And of course there’s that great Australianism, “whacko the diddle-oh!” popularised by that great Australian Barry Mackenzie. Used in appreciation of sheilas, tubes of amber nectar, and other pleasant things.

  35. 1. Terms of address. Incl. neutral ones like kiddo, boyo, bucko

    Not always so neutral. One of the news stories in my feed this morning is online outrage at Dr. Jill Biden being called “kiddo” in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.


  36. David Eddyshaw says

    I think it’s the “kid” rather than the “o” which is particularly the problem there …

    I liked

    “The author could’ve used fewer words to just say ‘ya know in my day we didn’t have to respect women,’” Chasten Buttigieg wrote.


  37. J.W. Brewer says

    Speaking as someone who by a small-world coincidence was educated in the exact same public school district in Northern Delaware that Jill Biden later taught in, I can assure you that way back in the Seventies we kids in that district were exposed to male teachers and administrators who had a prickly insistence on being called “Doctor SURNAME” because they had received a doctorate in education. And we generally called them that to their face because they were authority figures that it was imprudent to antagonize. But we were acting out of fear rather than respect, and we mocked them behind their backs.

    That said, it is quite possible that many of the Ed.D’s in question lacked any self-awareness as to how their petty-bourgeois insistence on particular deferential forms of address was actually perceived by the adolescents they held authority over (and/or perceived by parents who didn’t want to piss off the petty authority figures who could choose to make their children’s lives easier or harder). So as to any individual Ed.D., it may be that the proper attitude is don’t hate the player; hate the game.

  38. David Eddyshaw says

    We had a Chemistry teacher with a PhD. Among ourselves, we called him Fudd (as in Elmer.) As far as I remember, he never asked to be called “doctor.”

  39. “Whack fol the diddle” is a song with words by Peadar Kearney, best known for the Irish national anthem. Those are just preexisting nonlexical vocables. Irish traditional music (vocal or instrumental) is deprecatingly called “diddly-idly music”.

    In Ireland primary school teachers do a BEd and secondary teachers do a bachelor’s in their subject(s) followed by a H.Dip. in Ed. Hardly anybody does a higher degree in education.

  40. More Australian examples:

    Scomo, obviously.

    Very pejorative as I understand.

  41. J.W. Brewer says

    mollymooly, your H.Dip. in Ed. would be in the U.S. these days a master’s degree in Ed. Holders of Ed.D’s are more likely (although not 100% of the time) to be administators rather than classroom teachers, although generally only in public schools (“state schools” you may say over there). That we are perhaps more credentialist than you is not necessarily to our credit.

  42. David Eddyshaw says

    My UK experience is that few holders of doctorates call themselves “doctor” outside of specifically academic settings; this may be because the title is very firmly associated in the public mind with medical practioners (few of whom, in our system, actually have doctor’s degrees in fact.)

    This used to come up regularly in the early days of Dr Who.

    George Mikes, in How to Be an Alien, explains that it is Not Done in Britain to call yourself “doctor” unless you’re a physician; he says that even if you have three PhDs, if you call yourself “doctor” people will know that it actually only signifies that you’re a Middle European.

  43. The use of “kiddo” is certainly offensive, as any term calling her a child would be. It’s also interesting. I hadn’t heard the term in years, but it turns out to be popular among educators here in Evanston, IL. I first heard my daughter’s principal say kiddos at an assembly a few years ago, and actually said something to my wife because it sounded weird, almost patronizing. But I’ve come to realize it’s just part of the local educator jargon. I’ve heard at least two other local teachers use it. In my experience,always in the plural, either addressing “kiddos” or talking about “the kiddos” (the latter being the usage that I think really struck me as odd.)

    I know a fair number of teachers, but hadn’t otherwise heard kiddo. So I wonder if this is a hyperlocal language fad in Evanston, or a broader thing among teachers.

    The reason it might be interesting is because Epstein was (and may still be) a resident of Evanston. So his use of the term may be an effort to turn his knife in a way he believed was directly relevant, adopting an educator’s dialect to school them.

    It’s offensive regardless, but I thought this might be a context. Otherwise, it’s like he’s resurrecting a term not heard since I Love Lucy fell out of syndication.

  44. @David Eddyshaw: That is basically the same as in most of America. Anyone referred to as “doctor” in general conversation will be presumed to be a medical doctor unless otherwise indicated. Of course, there are circumstances when other doctorates might be expected, such as a school of a vet’s office. There is also a tendency, among some Christian groups, to refer to pastors with doctor of divinity degrees universally by the title “doctor.”

    Personally—although I have a T-shirt that says “not that kind of doctor”—I would be happy never to be referred to as “Doctor Altschul.” In part, that is because my father is a medical doctor. In any case, I prefer to be addressed as “professor,” although the culture at my institution favors “doctor,” so I have gotten more used to that.

    When this guy was a post-doctoral instructor at MIT, he once substituted for our regular professor, Harvey Greenspan, when Greenspan had laryngitis. Greenspan brought him in and explained that “Doctor Witelski” would be taking over for him that day. After Greenspan left, Witelski immediately started up with, “Hi, I’m Tom. Only my mother calls me ‘Doctor Witelski.'” At the time, I thought that was a joke, but I’m pretty sure now that he was quite serious.

  45. David Eddyshaw says

    Rupert Giles : Ms Calendar?
    Jenny Calendar : Oh, no, please, call me Jenny. “Ms Calendar” is my father.

  46. Do people who object to “Dr. Biden” also object to “Dr. King”? If not, why not?

  47. The link to the Comics Journal article on Knocko the Monk quotes Harpo’s story on how the Marxes got their monikers, after other vaudevillians who got into it.

    Here’s a bit more on Gus Mager, with another sample of Knocko.

    A comment in the TCJ article links to an 1897 cartoon strip spoof of Sherlock Holmes, drawn by Jack Butler Yeats, William’s brother. So this is not entirely lowbrow, you know.

    Also, WP says the name Ringo Starr was “derived from the rings he wore and also because it implied a country and western influence.” That’s no help.

  48. Lars Mathiesen says

    A Danish doktor is presumed to be a general practitioner of medicine, not even a specialist with a private practice would be known as doktor Hansen to his patients or staff, I think. I’ve been told that even as late as the 80’s, medical residents were required to submit a dissertation for a doctorate to get a license to practice, while you could get a tenured position everywhere else in higher learning without a formal doctorate — that was something you worked on for decades if you felt the urge, basically in your spare time, and there were not many who went through with it, most of them (full) professors. Since double titles were never a fashion here, they probably just kept the one they were using already, possibly with (doctor polyt.) after their name).

    Then the ph.d. degree came in, to be compatible with the Anglo system — about the level of the old medical doctorates, I think, and maybe modern doctors actually have a ph.d. in medicine, but nobody would dream of calling a ph.d. holder doktor either.

  49. J.W. Brewer says

    I think it is plausible and understandable for there to be certain sorts of titles and forms of address that are used for their recipients within a particular professional subculture but not used “socially.” Maybe some people addressed my grandfather (a research chemist with a Ph.D. working outside a university context) as “Dr. Brewer” at the lab or at professional conferences, but certainly not elsewhere. So one additional issue here is that even if it is widespread in the U.S. to call holder of Ed.D’s “Dr. So-and-so” in the in-school context (albeit maybe grudgingly because of the captive-audience dynamic), to the extent Jill Biden wants to be addressed that way in other contexts where her professional qualifications in her chosen profession are not so obviously salient that’s a more aggressive ask. In a small town when you bump into your child’s elementary school principal at the grocery store there’s maybe a bit of ambiguity as to whether they’re still “in role” or not.

    In most American universities, “Professor SURNAME” is viewed as a posher title than “Dr. SURNAME” which is one factor in university-based Ph.D.’s being able to take an aw-shucks modest approach about being addressed as “doctor.” Jill Biden’s non-high-school teaching career was as a professor in community colleges (typically a two-year degree program) where one cannot have the same assumption that essentially everyone on the faculty has a doctorate, so maybe the perceived relative poshness of the titles is otherwise in that context?

    I do think in the U.S. that the two occupational groups most likely to be consistently addressed by their “professional” titles in a general “social” context are clergy and medical professionals, but I think there’s an argument to be made that those are the two groups that are most widely perceived never really “off the job” in that there’s a certain cultural background expectation that in any random social situation they may be suddenly called on to exercise their professional role in the event of emergency in a way that is not true for someone whose professional skill set involves educational administration. I guess maybe serving military personnel (at least above a certain rank) may be similar.

  50. David Eddyshaw says

    I don’t know many retired army officers, but the three I have known socially went by their erstwhile military ranks in civilian life (a colonel and two majors.)

    I have some vague memory that there are actual rules about this in the UK, to the effect that mere Captains and below don’t get to do that. I could easily be mistaken, though.

    It doesn’t seem to be usual among ex-army officers who went on to do other things after leaving the army, or who weren’t regulars in the first place.

  51. J.W. Brewer says

    To hat’s specific question about Dr. King, as already noted usage conventions have traditionally been otherwise for the clergy, including to some extent in the U.K. where it is common for C of E bishops to be “Dr SURNAME” in newspaper stylebooks even when the only doctorate they hold is honorary.

  52. J.W. Brewer says

    David E.: I think that the U.S. military likewise has official rules about how high your rank should have been before you ought to use it in retirement but I don’t know how much social usage does or doesn’t track that. Sometimes there are suspicious after-the-fact promotions. By the late 19th century one of my great-great-grandfathers was apparently ubiquitously known in his corner of rural Iowa as Captain Huntley although the official gov’t records are clear that he was merely First Lieutenant Huntley when he was mustered out of the 96th Ohio Vol. Inf. in 1865 after having helped to crush the Slave Power. (He had signed on three years previously as Private Huntley, so he’d done alright for himself.)

  53. I don’t care for either educators with Ed. D. degrees (like Jill Biden) or religious leaders* using the title “doctor,” period. My gut feeling is that there is a hierarchy of doctoral degrees, and only holders of certain ones—doctorates in medicine, veterinary medicine, and philosophy (as well as their formal equivalents, like the British Comonwealth use of “doctor of science”)—should be addressed as “doctor.” Nobody refers to American lawyers as “doctor,” even thought they all hold doctoral degrees.**

    I should point out that I also feel firmly that it is quite gauche to refer to one’s self by a title, unless asked about it, or unless the title is necessary to convey important information about one’s professional position. For example, in a medical context, it may make sense to introduce one’s self as “Doctor [surname],” since that tells the patient one’s job. In contrast, when I introduce myself to a classroom full of college students, I just give them my name; for them, it should be enough that I am their assigned instructor, and if they want more information about my specific position and qualifications, they can ask. Most of the time, when I hear about somebody with a non-medical degree “using” a title, it strikes me as extremely tacky behavior.

    * In Martin Luther King Jr.’s case, while his lifetime body of work is truly impressive, there is the additional problem that his doctoral thesis was plagiarized.

    ** The American Bar Association asserts that the doctor of jurisprudence should be considered academically equivalent of a doctor of philosophy degree, but that is ludicrous.

  54. In Czechia, university graduates with master’s degree are addressed as “pane magistře” (Mister Master).

    In Poland too, I think.

    Very cute.

  55. Sounds more like “Lord Master”.

  56. J.W. Brewer says

    I don’t have a Ph.D. but I do have a J.D. I can assure Brett that while the various U.S. bar regulatory authorities have now generally decided that it is no longer an actual violation of the rules of professional conduct (with resultant disciplinary sanctions) for a holder of a J.D. to refer to him or herself as “Doctor SURNAME,” very very few American lawyers do so and the overwhelming majority of lawyers think that anyone who does do so is ridiculous and/or is trying to scam unsophisticated clients who don’t realize that almost all lawyers these days have a diploma with the word “doctor” on it. Barack and Michelle Obama both held J.D.’s (from a very high-prestige law school) and no one ever suggested that either of them ought to be addressed as “Dr. Obama.”

    Customs may be different elsewhere. I used to work at a big NYC-headquartered law firm with a branch office in Frankfurt and many of the German-educated and German-licensed lawyers in that office used “Dr.” professionally, which was apparently in keeping with the local norms.

    I will also say that Ph.D.’s (and Brett does not appear to be one!) who think that they are among the “real” doctors who therefore should be addressed as such but Ed.D’s aren’t are perhaps on the thinnest ice. The larger problem here imho is the gratuitous interjection of bullshit credentialism into expected linguistic conventions for social interaction in a generally egalitarian culture, and intra-doctoral squabbles about whose paper credentials are fancier than whose exacerbate rather than ameliorate that problem.

    FWIW when I’m in the hospital and some younger-than-middled-aged-me person comes up and says “Hi I’m Dr. SURNAME” my default assumption is that they aren’t *really* a “real” doctor, but are a recent med school graduate doing their residency but not yet actually licensed to practice as a physician without supervision. I know they do it because they’ve been told to do it as part of their training, so I try not to personalize it, but it really grates on me.

  57. Comments on scientific and scholarly matters written by amateurs often take pains to refer to authors of referenced publications as “Professor —” or “—, Ph.D.”, whereas the usual practice is to use “—”. It usually sets my teeth on edge, because it a) smacks of trying to gain respectability by appealing to titled authority, b) is unaware of the enormous contributions of people who are neither professors nor doctors (mostly but not only students), c) endows people with authority which they don’t always deserve, such as Profs./Drs. in unrelated fields, or simply ones who are not good at what they do, and d) because I associate it with aggressive crackpots, who would claim to go against the oppressive academic mainstream but are not averse to adorning themselves with its superficial honors.

  58. Scomo, obviously.

    Very pejorative as I understand.

    I don’t think Scomo is pejorative at all. And it’s an abbreviation of Sco[tt] Mo[rrison], not an example of adding “-o” to a word.

    It gets pejorative when people modify it to “Scummo”.

  59. Customs may be different elsewhere. I used to work at a big NYC-headquartered law firm with a branch office in Frankfurt and many of the German-educated and German-licensed lawyers in that office used “Dr.” professionally, which was apparently in keeping with the local norms
    This is because doctorate and qualification as a lawyer are two different things in Germany. To work as a lawyer, you have to do a mix of university education and practice culminating in a specific exam, the so-called “Zweites Staatsexamen”; you can then go on to get a doctorate by continuing to study. So their “Dr. Jur.” underlines their additional qualification.
    In any case, as was mentioned, titles like “Doktor” or “Professor” play a much bigger role in the Central European tradition; in Germany, they are legally part of your name and you have a right to be addressed with these titles if you have the right to carry them. Now, Germany nowadays has become much less formal in the last two generations, and most holders of such titles will ask you to omit them, but it’s socially still preferable to use them until you have received such a waiver.
    (And as in other countries, outside of academic contexts the default assumption if somebody is called “Dr.” is that he’s a medical practitioner.)

  60. I don’t care for either educators with Ed. D. degrees (like Jill Biden) or religious leaders* using the title “doctor,” period. My gut feeling is that there is a hierarchy of doctoral degrees, and only holders of certain ones—doctorates in medicine, veterinary medicine, and philosophy (as well as their formal equivalents, like the British Comonwealth use of “doctor of science”)—should be addressed as “doctor.”

    Well, the convention of using “Doctor” for the first two groups is probably too strong to overcome, although in the Commonwealth, medical schools award a joint Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery/Chirurgy (variously abbreviated). But I’m not sure exactly what separates the Ph.D. in your mind from other research degrees. The Ed.D. is ambiguous: UDel’s current Ed.D. degree is a practitioner’s degree in school leadership and administration without a dissertation, but I’m not sure that was true when Biden took her degree there in 2007; her thesis is varyingly described as a dissertation and an executive position paper, and looks to me not unlike a Ph.D. in the social sciences, though I haven’t been able to read the whole thing. Certainly it’s true that Ph.D.’s are expected to go into university teaching and Ed.D.’s often are not, but as is well known, not all Ph.D.s can become professors, and some Ed.D.s do, particularly at 2-year and 4-year colleges.

    The other doctoral degrees are certainly research degrees: the S.J.D. or LL.D. in law, the historic Th.D. in theology (though many universities have switched to granting Ph.D.’s in theology and leaving Th.D. degrees to seminaries), and so on.

    Nobody refers to American lawyers as “doctor,” even thought they all hold doctoral degrees.

    You can still get an LL.B. (Bachelor of Laws), if you want one, from at least some universities. When the University of Pennsylvania asked my father if he wanted to trade in his LL.B. for a J.D., he declined to so, and remained Thomas A. Cowan, A.B. (his high school was one of three in the Commonwealth allowed to grant that degree), B.A in business, LL.B., M.A. in philosophy, Ph.D. in philosophy all from UPenn, S.J.D. from Harvard. Hey, it was the Depression: jobs were scarce and education was cheap.

  61. The idea that what lawyers like me hold is a “doctoral degree” is utterly ridiculous. The law degree is a second bachelors – the program of study is set coursework, with some electives; no prior knowledge in any discipline is required; no original scholarly work is performed; there is nothing remotely like a dissertation defense; and at most schools, there isn’t even a research paper requirement.

    Lincoln once asked, how many legs does a dog have, if you call its tail a leg? Five, said his companion. No, four, said Lincoln. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.

  62. John Emerson says

    On the internet I explained once to a math PhD that you’re not a real doctor unless you can ask people to drop their pants and bend over so you can stick your finger up their butt.

    She was the right person to say that to and we’ve been imaginary friends ever since.

  63. On the internet I explained once to a math PhD that you’re not a real doctor unless you can ask people to drop their pants and bend over so you can stick your finger up their butt.

    So, your definition of a “real doctor” is a proctologist? Do tell. On second thought, please don’t. But your correspondent was being extremely kind to humor you.

    Your comment brought this to mind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-zf2UBp7fY

  64. John Emerson says

    Family practice doctors do that routinely. It’s part of every physical, checking for ruptures. She wasn’t kindly humoring me, her sense of humor was just more like mine than yours is.

  65. Family practice doctors do that routinely.

    On what planet do you live, exactly? Not in 2020, they don’t. Potential prostate problems are diagnosed by blood test these days, and no one has ever routinely screened for entirely hypothetical, asymptomatic “ruptures.” I’ve nearly six decades under my belt and have never had a single “finger test” in my entire life. (Knock wood.)

  66. David Marjanović says

    “pane magistře”

    Herr Magister. And yes, that’s what my bank in Vienna used to call me. The title was even in my passport (abbreviated Mag., not Mgr. as in Czechia and Poland).

    titles like “Doktor” or “Professor” play a much bigger role in the Central European tradition; in Germany, they are legally part of your name

    No, but most people believe they are.

    (Apparently they were at some point, when doctors were automatically ennobled – and titles of nobility had to be used at every occasion. Compare , Esq. for American lawyers.)

    Germany nowadays has become much less formal in the last two generations

    The secretaries here at the natural-history museum in Berlin just use Herr/Frau + surname in the second and the third person. That remains unthinkable in Austria.

  67. John Emerson says

    I do have a “rupture”, as you call it, and my doctor found it. But please contact him immediately and tell him he’s all wrong. I’m sure that he’ll be grateful to you for being corrected.

  68. On what planet do you live, exactly?

    As a resident of the same planet (I assume) that other commenters inhabit, I feel obliged to volunteer that I have endured the ‘finger-in-bum’ test quite a number of times. Although my doc doesn’t do it anymore. But then she also doesn’t do the PSA test, because that’s been found to yield more false positives than useful results.

  69. @John Cowan: The thing about Ed. D. degrees is that since many programs do not require a dissertation, ipso facto, the degree itself does not require a dissertation. There are, of course, many degrees that are, as I said, “formal equivalents” to the Ph. D., most of which still exist today primarily for cultural or historical reasons. However, the Ed. D. is not one of them. There are plenty of universities that also offer a Ph. D. in education, which is a much more respected degree among academics; even in Ed. D. programs that do require them, Ed. D. theses have a reputation for being half assed.

    @laowai: A full physical in America normally entails a rectal exam. The last time I had a physical, my doctor said (in what I presume was a well-rehearsed remark) that the exam was unpleasant for both participants, but it was nonetheless important.

  70. I do have a “rupture”, as you call it

    You were the one who called it a “rupture”! Which is why I used the scare-quotes. I would call it a hernia. “Rupture,” to me, is a very quaint 19th-century euphemism.

    And it does seem odd—but very lucky!– to me that if you were otherwise feeling perfectly healthy, your primary care physician should have stuck his finger up your bum and randomly found it. But good on him. That’s not the way health care usually works in the USA.

    @Brett. I’m American. Again, I’ve never had one. Never had one even suggested, though I’m AARP-eligible. YMMV.

  71. J.W. Brewer says

    You don’t even need to be a “real doctor” to conduct DRE’s, as I believe they’re called in the trade (=Digital Rectal Examination(s)). You can be e.g. a nurse-practitioner w/o anyone using any fancy title with your surname in direct address or third-party reference.

    Bloix’s points about (American) law school are all accurate but I wonder if he hasn’t also proved to his own satisfaction that M.D.’s aren’t “real doctors.” The M.D. isn’t an original-research-oriented degree. It’s just a trade-school credential like a law degree, although arguably the risks to ones future clients if you don’t pay attention to the details they tried to teach you and just bluff your way through are somewhat greater. .

  72. John Emerson says

    We have had a frank exchange of views, and perhaps we should resolve never to have another. I have certainly found it to be entirely unfruitful, and I suspect that this the one thing upon which the two of us can agree.

  73. John Emerson says

    (The above is intended for laowai, as should be clear).

  74. Unless I missed it, no one has mentioned “psycho”, a word that gained popularity after 1960. “Schizo” is another one I remember hearing in the ‘80s a lot.

  75. Is boho (< bohemian) derogatory? I’d call it ironic at worst, like beatnik.

  76. In England and Ireland, ordinary physicians get no doctorate but three primary degrees, MB, BCh, BAO. “Doctor” is a courtesy title, like calling a Duke’s eldest son “Marquess”. The exception is a surgeon, who despite having the same degrees is addressed as “Mister”, a relic of the days of the barber-surgeon. Dunno what one calls a surgeon who happens to have an MD; quite likely they will be “Professor” if not “Sir”/”Dame”.

  77. I wonder if there was ever an overlap between the era of people feeling compelled to call their physician “Doctor” or their professor “Professor”, and the era of people feeling compelled to use addresses of nobility. How did Lord Rutherford’s students address him? “My Lord”? “Professor”? “Ernie”?

  78. David Eddyshaw says

    Unfortunately it seems to devolve upon me to say that a physician purporting to use a rectal examination to detect an inguinal hernia might find it difficult to defend him/herself against a charge of malpractice.

  79. Now that’s a fruitful comment!

    I’ve never had a rectal exam either, not even when I was hospitalized for a case of bloody stool of uncertain cause. They found the source of the bleeding in my intestines with a CT scan. The first night, I finished the book I’d brought with me — Young Stalin, whose wife died of typhus, hemorrhaging from her bowels. Since they still didn’t know why I was bleeding, they kept me in, and my wife brought me another book I was hoping to read, something topical in that first February of the Trump administration, a biography of Cato the Younger, who committed suicide by … well …

    What are the odds, really? There are so many ways to die.

  80. PlasticPaddy says


    I believe Rutherford could be a little overbearing. Piotr Kapitza gave him the nickname “Crocodile”.

    Oliphant* relates one time when Rutherford reached an impasse in a lecture and said to the class: “You sit there like a lot of numbskulls, and not one of you can tell me where I’ve gone wrong.”
    *Mark Oliphant (1901–2000), an Australian who came to the Cavendish Laboratory as a research student in 1927.
    Source: https://history.aip.org/exhibits/rutherford/sections/atop-physics-wave.html

    I was unable to locate online reminiscences of Walton, I am sure there would be something there. My guess would be that he would be addressed by junior colleagues as Professor Rutherford. Senior ones might have addressed him as Rutherford, unless they were close friends. But I could be wrong.

  81. I’ve had a couple of finger-up-rectum examinations. The last might have been 4-5 years ago, can’t remember. Not for a ‘rupture’ but to detect prostate size. I’ve also had the PSA test.

    I’m curious why this exchange led to a different kind of “rupture”, though. Not worth it.

  82. On what planet do you live, exactly? Not in 2020, they don’t. Potential prostate problems are diagnosed by blood test these days, and no one has ever routinely screened for entirely hypothetical, asymptomatic “ruptures.” I’ve nearly six decades under my belt and have never had a single “finger test” in my entire life. (Knock wood.)

    You might consider participating in a less belligerent manner. Like others here, I am American and have had more than one experience of a GP sticking a finger up my nether regions. Your experience is yours and no one can deny it, but generalizing to all mankind is unwarranted and foolish. “On what planet” indeed.

  83. titles like “Doktor” or “Professor” play a much bigger role in the Central European tradition; in Germany, they are legally part of your name

    No, but most people believe they are.
    Including me, up to now… I checked now and you’re right, they’re just a Namenszusatz, and there’s no legal right to be addressed by them, it’s more a matter of convention and politeness (and it seems not using them in some cases can be construed as disrespect, e.g. in employment relationships).

  84. David Marjanović says

    I wonder if he hasn’t also proved to his own satisfaction that M.D.’s aren’t “real doctors.”

    In Austria a Dr. med. degree does involve writing and presenting a thesis, but that is exactly the same as a Mag. rer. nat. ( = MSc) thesis; it’s just called a doctoral thesis, and the degree a doctorate, for historical reasons.

    A Dr. jur. degree used to work the same way, explaining why rather many politicians have one; but that changed in the last 20 years or so. Politicians are not addressed by their doctorates if they have a sufficiently impressive job title, but the TV will show you the title as part of the name.

  85. In the 1980s, the Irish President and Taoiseach were “Dr Hillery” (medico) and “Dr Fitzgerald” (PhD). RTÉ’s Belfast correspondent generally referred to “Dr Paisley”, acknowledging Big Ian’s honorary DD from Bob Jones University. I’m not sure whether this was simply a policy of using the referent’s own preferred usage or if some other considerations were in play.

    The current Tánaiste and previous Taoiseach, another medico, is “Mr Varadkar”. When he symbolically rejoined the medical register to fight COVID-19, there was a flurry of “Dr Varadkar” jocularity.

  86. J.W. Brewer says

    Re: Dr. Paisley, as I (and others) noted upthread, there have long been different conventions for clergymen in Anglophone societies. There’s I suppose the argument that in a secularizing society, holders of multiple secular-university paper credentials are the new clerisy who will come to fill that role and accordingly expect additional forms of verbal deference from the laity. (Dr. for clergymen is mostly a Protestant thing because of the lack of a hierarchy of multiple purely ecclesiastical titles that you can aspire to obtain as you work your way up the ladder.)

  87. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve just this minute realised that taoiseach is the exact same etymon as Welsh tywysog, and now I feel stupid.

  88. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    I happen to have a 1977 copy of The Gregg Reference Manual (fifth edition and the first to omit for stenographers and typists) lying around. Its section on Forms of Address has entries for: Government Officials, Members of the Armed Services, Roman Catholic Dignitaries, Protestant Dignitaries, Jewish Dignitaries, and finally Education Officials.

    The addressees for which it considers “Dear Dr. …” appropriate are the following: clergyman with doctor’s degree; rabbi with doctor’s degree, as an alternative to “Dear Rabbi …;” professor, as an alternative to “Dear Professor …;” and finally superintendent of schools, principal, or teacher (implicitly, those with a doctor’s degree).

    Earlier, in the chapter on Letters and Memos, it suggests that “doctors of medicine and divinity often prefer the use of the degree after their names (rather than the title Dr. before).” Which means that the only case in which the manual positively recommends addressing a letter to “Dr. John Smith” is when Dr. Smith is a school teacher, principal, or superintendent — and most likely an Ed.D. rather than a Ph.D.

    The view that lowly educators with their lowly Ed.D. degrees are usurping the lofty title of Dr. strikes me as quaintly exotic. In Italy, all teachers from grade 6 up get the title of Professor (a primary-school teacher is a “Maestro” or more likely “Maestra” instead). But then, we’re also a country where everyone with a college degree is a doctor.

  89. Lars Mathiesen says

    The Danish system was like this when I started: You did a double minor for 3 years, chose one of them as your major for 2 more years, and then you were cand. scient. — a candidate for the degree of mag. scient. which is where you did a real dissertation. (Of course magister is the English master, etymologically, but the Anglo system seems to have cut some corners, the old Danish magister is very like the Anglo Ph.D).

    Now you get a b.sc. for the initial 3-year stage, still cand. scient. for the next stage, and you can then hope to get funded for your ph.d. (You can’t just pay tuition, the budget of a research project is built on so many post-graduate salaries plus overhead, and the overhead is huge).

  90. Where do intro/outro slot in?

  91. Giacamo P: I think the “usurpation” angle has it a bit backwards. I think if anything one of the reasons Ed.D-holders are perhaps more eager than Ph.D.-holders to be addressed as “Doctor So-and-so” is precisely because they are keenly aware that the snobbish internal hierarchy of American academia views the Ed.D. as a lesser achievement, which thus leads to status anxiety that needs to be allayed.

    I just remembered the lines from Auden (maybe he was being snobbish):

    Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,
    Thou shalt not write thy doctor’s thesis
    On education,

    Brett asserted upthread that there’s a status difference between Ed.D.’s and Ph.D.’s in education, and I don’t know which Auden had in mind.

  92. Lars Mathiesen says

    intro — in the very old days (my mother’s time and before) there was a mandatory 3-month philosophicum course crowned by the ceremony granting academic citizenship (and the right to wear the hat). During those 3 months, people were not students but russer (from depositurus, going to put away the crass mores of laity). No weird boiler suits, though.

    They have actually had to reintroduce a course in the scientific method (and allied subjects) because most faculty can’t be arsed to teach it as part of first-year courses, they just don’t call it philosophicum now.

  93. I’m pretty allergic to titles, especially since as a translator from Italian it sometimes feels like I spend half my time removing them from people’s names. But we still live in a world where Mrs. is not the same as Mr., and I can understand how a woman of her generation married to a famous, older senator might want to be acknowledged as more than just Wife of Biden after doggedly pursuing her own degrees and career. I had two teachers who had us call them Dr., one in elementary school and one in high school. Both were women, and even as kids I think we understood it was a way of making clear that to them, teaching was more than just a convenient part-time job at their children’s school. And, in one case, that she was not just “the rabbi’s wife.” I’m sure they were mocked in private by some of their peers, but it definitely sent a message to their female students.

  94. I can understand how a woman of her generation married to a famous, older senator might want to be acknowledged as more than just Wife of Biden after doggedly pursuing her own degrees and career.

    Yup. Discussions of the ins and outs of how various countries and professions handle the issue are, of course, interesting, but in this specific case, I am comfortable assuming that anyone objecting to her use of the title is a sexist jerk.

  95. J.W. Brewer says

    @Biscia: maybe you don’t know this because you plausibly wouldn’t have, but were there other teachers in the same schools at the same time who possessed doctorates but who didn’t want to be addressed as Doctor SURNAME? If so, male, female, or both? Do you know if the ones who did expect to be addressed as Dr. in school expected to be addressed that way in out-of-school contexts by people they met in a non-professional capacity? I don’t find the in-school usage odd at all. I may dislike it, but because it’s common in context it’s not useful to fault any particular individual for going along with the local norm in that context.* It’s the question of use in a wider set of social contexts where it’s much less obviously salient that’s where people’s intuitions about social conventions and what’s reasonable and what’s not are so widely divergent.

    FWIW, as best as I can recall, the only K-12 classroom teacher I personally had (I *think* all the call-me-doctors I had to interact with were administrators) whom we addressed by a special title was my wonderful (female) Latin teacher, whom of course we called “Magistra.” Maybe we called the German teacher “Frau SURNAME,” but the point there is that we would have called any female past a certain age that regardless of her perceived rank in some class hierarchy.

    *It does strike me, trying to be charitable with more than four decades’ hindsight, that it’s possible that the (male) call-me-doctor administrator in junior high school who first rubbed me the wrong way on this issue may not have been all that personally invested in it but felt that it was his institutional obligation to play the role and reinforce the convention and not undermine other call-me-doctor colleagues who were more personally invested in it.

  96. PlasticPaddy says

    Re tywysog / taoiseach, is this the military leader as opposed to the ceremonial rhi / rí? The construction is like German Anführer.

  97. i wonder whether part of the link between gus mager and the vaudeville “-o”s and the pejorative “-o”s is the temporal overlap of comic book “-o” villains like Bizarro (…Magneto, et al) and hitchcock’s Psycho.

  98. David Eddyshaw says


    Tywysog is “prince, captain, leader” and need not be royal (though Prince Charles claims to be Tywysog Cymru.) The etymology is “leader”, as you evidently know.

    Interestingly, I was just reading (thanks to Hat) about R S Rattray, who was government anthropologist in what is now Ghana in the early part of the twentieth century. He seems to have been the first Brit to realise that the traditional power structure among his “Tribes of the Ashanti Hinterland” was more complicated than the proponents of Indirect Rule via “traditional chiefs” had supposed: there is an older layer of what are sometimes called “earth-priests” (tendaannam in Kusaal) who are the leading figures in traditional “religious” matters. Rattray seems to have interpreted this as meaning that the “earth-priests” were the original ceremonial kings, whereas the “chiefs” (na’anam) were military rulers; judging by the Kusaasi, though, I don’t think he was right: before their Mamprussi neighbours imposed chiefs on them, the Kusaasi basically didn’t have chiefs, and wouldn’t have expected a tendaan to order people about in any matter outside his religious jurisdiction. (They still don’t take kindly to anyone assuming that they have any legitimate authority to push them around.)

    Still, the authorities could have avoided a lot of future problems if they’d listened to Rattray instead of blithely assuming that traditional power structure in (what became) northern Ghana worked in basically the same way as in (what became) northern Nigeria. Rattray became increasingly critical of “Indirect Rule”, at least as it was being implemented in practice, which doubtless contributed to the government’s conclusion that he was a bit Unsound.

  99. Unless I missed it, no one has mentioned “psycho”

    OK, now I have to bring in Elvis Costello again.

  100. @J.W. Brewer: At my high school, some of the foreign language teachers were routinely called by foreign titles, and some were not. In a foreign language class, students naturally referred to their teachers in that language, but some teachers were referred to by foreign title even outside class. Complicating things was that several of the school’s teachers taught more than one language, or taught a foreign language as well as some other subject. For example, one of the teachers, Mr. Jansen, taught German and English; he was also finishing up a Ph. D. in Russian literature when I was a student, and it was presumed that he would take over the Russian classes when Mr. Chapman retired. (Googling, I find that Dr. Jansen did not actually complete his dissertation, Images of Dostoevsky in German Literary Expressionism, until 2003, the same year I got my Ph. D.)

    There were also three (potential) French teachers. One was an unmarried woman who taught nothing but French,* but there was usually a need for one or two more classes than she could cover. So the remaining classes were divided between a married woman, who mostly taught social studies and a married man** who mostly taught Spanish. The French teachers actually encouraged their language students to refer to the three of them not by name at all, but simply as “Mademoiselle,” “Madame,” and “Monsieur.”

    * Her classroom was across the hall from the two German teachers’ rooms, and they sometimes ribbed her good-naturedly for using the linguistically peculiar name of “Mademoiselle Krank.”

    ** Later, he went to prison for having sex with several female students.

  101. Her classroom was across the hall from the two German teachers’ rooms, and they sometimes ribbed her good-naturedly for using the linguistically peculiar name of “Mademoiselle Krank.”

    As I’ve mentioned before, my high-school French teacher was Mme. Ruegg. She, however, also taught German. (I believe she was from Alsace.)

  102. John Emerson says

    Sartre’s maternal grandfather and surrogate father was an Alsatian cousin of Albert Schweitzer. He taught German but was a French patriot.

    Or maybe everyone knows that already.

  103. Not I! I love that kind of thing.

  104. I wonder how teachers of Russian in the US were addressed.

    In Russia traditionally they are addressed by name and patronymic – Maria Ivanovna, Elena Sergeevna, Boris Petrovich, etc.

    But wouldn’t it be rather complicated for 1st year Russian students?

  105. When I took 1st year Russian, the teacher was very explicit about how she wanted to be addressed: by her full first name, no more, no less.

  106. I can’t imagine a Russian student addressing teacher by first name.

  107. John Emerson says

    My parents were on a first-name basis with one of my HS teachers. Once when I was about 14 I referred to him that way and was brought up short by a different teacher (who didn’t know my parents): “His name is Mr Jorgenson”.

  108. I can imagine a Russian first-grader referring to a teacher who is a friend of his parents as Uncle Petya or Aunt Marina. Of course, he would be then quickly corrected by the teacher – “you can’t call me that in the classroom!”.

    Even when the age difference between teacher and students is very small (eg, a young teacher just out of college teaching teenage students), propriety dictates obligatory use of name+patronymic.

    If they don’t, then something is certainly wrong in that class.

    Being on first names basis could imply sexual relationship between student and teacher, for example.

  109. John Emerson says

    “Could imply a sexual relationship between student and teacher”: in that same HS, a few years after I graduated in 1964, one student married a teacher immediately upon graduation. (The age difference could have been as little as 5 years. ) She’s a family friend but I don’t know her well, but she seems to be doing fine. Back then and there, dropping out and getting married at 16 wasn’t uncommon, so it wasn’t that big a scandal since she graduated HS at least, and not only that, she continued her education after marriage.

  110. I was wondering about “bingo”, and discovered some facts that were definitely new to me:

    1) Both the game and the word had incarnations/usages that predate the currently understood combination of the word and the game.

    2) The game, I suppose, is older:


    A lottery game called “Il Giuoco del Lotto d’Italia” was being played in Italy by about 1530. In eighteenth-century France playing cards, tokens and the calling out of numbers were added. In the nineteenth century a game like this was widely played in Germany to teach children spelling, animal names and multiplication tables.

    The French game Le Lotto appeared in 1778, featuring 27 squares in a layout of three rows and nine columns. Five squares in each row had numbers ranging from 1 through 90, which led to the modern design.

    3) The word “bingo”, per Green’s, originally meant “brandy or other hard liquor”. It also meant a drunk or an alcoholic.

    4) The meaning I had in mind, “used to imply a moment’s surprise, excitement, suddenness” also predates the game. I thought that the exclamation arose from players calling “bingo!” to announce the win, but, it is claimed, it is actually the other way around. The earliest citation in Green’s for “bingo!” alone is from 1915; the game’s name was made “Bingo!” in the 1920s.

    5) Green’s also includes bango! bingorino! zingo! as similar exclamations under the same heading (and the first quotation is for “bingorino!”).

    6) Zingo! recently (2002) has also been taken as the name of a game similar to Bingo.

    7) Something something, Bozo the Clown, to Bingo the Clown-o?.

  111. zingo!

    This is probably related to

    1660–70; originally conjurer’s call “hey jingo” – ‘appear! come forth!’ (opposed to “hey presto” – ‘hasten away!’), taken into general use in the phrase “by Jingo”, euphemism for ‘by God’; chauvinistic sense from “by Jingo” in political song supporting use of British forces against Russia in 1878

  112. What do bing, blot, sting, stink, and wine all have in common? The “-o” of alcohol/alcoholism.

  113. Johanna Bishop says

    @J.W. Brewer: In answer to your first question, I’m afraid I have no idea. Although I certainly knew as a kid that not all PhDs wanted to be addressed as Dr., since my dad had a doctorate and if anyone had called him that I would have laughed for a week. As for the second, the one in high school was my beloved French teacher so we actually called her Madame in class, but in English it was Dr. and I’m almost positive that’s what she preferred outside of school as well (as I said, not just the rabbi’s wife: I’m not Jewish so I didn’t go to their synagogue, but their names did turn up in the paper). In a profession like teaching, people’s social and working lives are often intertwined – again, both of these women had children at the same school. And my French teacher, on a very small, local scale, was in the public eye. So “expected to be addressed that way” doesn’t mean she was huffily correcting people at parties or in the supermarket, it means that to some degree it extended naturally from her professional life and to some degree she or someone else must have pointed it out to people writing newsletters and so on.

  114. Bingo the game is probably related to Green’s exclamation meaning, “used to imply a moment’s surprise, excitement, suddenness etc.” not to any of the noun meaning, including the alcohol one.
    Bingorino (1908) predates bingo (1915) in his examples.

  115. I am surprised to find separate articles for US and UK bingo games. I was aware that in the UK game one (sometimes?) shouts “house” instead of “bingo” — doesn’t work figuratively though. (Was there some TV character who said “Yahtzee” instead of “bingo”?) In my youth a 7-letter play in Scrabble was simply called a bonus, not a bingo; dunno if this spread from US to UK or from hardcore to casual players.

  116. Bingo the game is probably related to Green’s exclamation meaning, “used to imply a moment’s surprise, excitement, suddenness etc.” not to any of the noun meaning, including the alcohol one.

    Yes, and if my words seemed to imply otherwise, I didn’t intend them to.

    Although I did have the speculation that the “bingo!” exclamation arose as an alcoholic’s cheer from drinking the brandy, it seems far more likely that the conjurors “jingo!” mutated as suggested by SFReader.

    I will note that a search of newspapers did turn up “Bingo” in the early part of the 20th century, but not necessarily as an exclamation. There was a performing horse named Bingo whose passing was noted; a character in a play was called “Bingo” (maybe intended as an alcoholic? Maybe a magician? I dunno.), and there was an event at Binghamton, NY, called “Carnival Bingo”. While the last was no doubt intended as a shortening of the city name, maybe the conjuror’s call was also in mind. Insufficient data.

    Checking out Binghamton’s WikiP, I can see that their baseball team in the late 19th century was called the “Bingoes”, and . . . oh, dear:

    The 1887 Binghamton Bingoes of the International League attracted national attention when the white players revolted against the two black players on the team. The reaction around the league forced Binghamton to release the black players, and the team itself folded shortly thereafter.

  117. Yeah, the history of black players in 19th-century baseball is a sad and bitter one.

  118. I will note that a search of newspapers did turn up “Bingo” in the early part of the 20th century, but not necessarily as an exclamation. There was a performing horse named Bingo whose passing was noted; a character in a play was called “Bingo” (maybe intended as an alcoholic? Maybe a magician? I dunno.), and there was an event at Binghamton, NY, called “Carnival Bingo”.

    Richard P. “Bingo” Little.

  119. PlasticPaddy says
  120. One of Cole Porter’s early compositions (written when he was still a teenager), commences with:

    Bingo! Bingo!
    Bingo, bingo, bingo, that’s the lingo!

    It seems rather a cheap rhyme and I don’t know which half was picked to fit the other.

  121. “Bingo”

    Words and music by Cole Porter, 1913

    Bingo! Bingo!
    Bingo, bingo, bingo! That’s the lingo.
    Eli is bound to win,
    There’s to be a victory,
    So watch the team begin.
    Bingo! Bingo!
    hahvahd’s team cannot prevail.
    Fight! Fight!
    Fight with all your might,
    For Bingo, Bingo, Eli Yale!

    From Yale Fight Songs, which also has “Bulldog,” words and music by Cole Porter, 1913; note that Harvard is rendered “hahvahd” throughout the page.

  122. “Bingo,” at least, was written in or before 1910. The “1913” identifies Porter as a member of the Class of 1913, meaning he had matriculated in 1909. I expect the original sheet music or what have you had the standard orthography for “Harvard” rather than the pejorative alternative now available on the internet.

  123. “Bingo, bango, bongo” was an old-fashioned golfing term for finishing a hole in three good strokes—bingo onto the fairway; bango onto the green; and bongo into the hole. In golf, it was resurrected more recently and used for a betting game where points are scored separately for being the first onto the green, nearest to the flag when all ball are on the green, and first into the cup. Bill “The Schonz” Schonley, the play by play announcer for the Portland Trail Blazers through the ’70s, ’80s, and into the ’90s, adapted it to transition plays where the Blazers, through quick and adept passing, would get a quick layup or dunk during a fast break.

  124. taoiseach is the exact same etymon as Welsh tywysog

    Doublets are hard to spot. The sense divergence into ‘prime minister’, ‘prince’ and (in ScG) ‘clan chief’ is pretty substantial.

    is this the military leader

    Possibly. The Proto-Celtic etymon *towissākos has two plausible etymologies, one from PIE *wid- ‘see/know’ as in video and wit, and one from *wedʰ- ‘lead’. The suffix is clear enough; it’s cognate with Latin -acus and English -y. So the word started life as an adjective of some sort.

  125. “Bingo, bango, bongo” was an old-fashioned golfing term for finishing a hole in three good strokes

    You astonish me. For my entire life until now I have associated it solely with this deeply politically incorrect song from the 1940s. (I love the solemn marginal explanations: “The speaker is satisfied just living off the land and does not want to add the artificial complications of the modern world to their life.”)

  126. John Emerson says

    Awhile back my son played me an novelty song like that comparing people to jungle apes, and it made me uneasy for obvious reasons, but it was a black singer on a black music label. It was a satire on human foibles with no particular racial reference.

  127. John Emerson says

    “Yahtzee” is a dice game whose rules I used to know,

  128. Lars Mathiesen says

    In Yahtzee, Yahtzee is the highest-scoring combination (5 identical dice) and might well be announced with a bit of gloating attached.

  129. David Eddyshaw says

    politically incorrect song

    The actual sentiment expressed is not unlike the Kinks’ Apeman, though Ray Davies quite properly invokes the spirit of Tarzan rather than imaginary Noble Savages.

    If you believe he sings “a-foggin” there, you’ll believe anything.

  130. David Marjanović says
  131. J.W. Brewer says

    Apeman is not one of my personal favorites, but it’s striking that the next two singles the band released were God’s Children and 20th Century Man. With that three-in-a-row, Ray was really hitting his reactionary-critique-of-modernity stride, especially with the subtext that the “Village Green” mode of nostalgia for some pre-WW2 lost Eden didn’t go back nearly far enough.

  132. I would have thought bango–bongo–bingo corresponded better to the respective sounds of the driver, iron, and putter. Alternatively, bingo–bango–bungo has gives a strong-verb conjugation.

  133. @mollymooly: I always thought bingo, bango, bongo must have originated at least partially by analogy to the class 3 strong verbs. [Note that the strong forms of class 3 have most frequently been preserved (or even innovated) when the vowel is followed by n or ng.] Why the last word was not therefore bungo* is a mystery.

    * (1246–⁠1346 S.R.)

  134. Ann A Folsom says

    When I was a public school teacher, I went to law school at night, and received a J.D. I never practiced, but was delighted when I found that a doctor of jurisprudence moved over a column to the right on the district’s salary schedule, just as if I had earned a Ph.D.

  135. Ware’s 1909 slang dictionary, Passing English of the Victorian Era lists “Squasho (American passing into England). Negro—a title probably resulting from the negro’s love of melons, pumpkins, squashes, etc.” This dictionary, listing slang term passing into obsolescence, is flawed in many ways, as some contemporary critics, especially American, pointed out. It’s quite fun to read, though, even for its genre. Green thinks that Squasho is more likely from quashie (supposedly from a Twi word for ‘boy born on a Sunday’) which became a general term for a black person as early as 1790.

    Jumbo in the sense of ‘big and clumsy’ is attested as early in 1818 (the elephant of that name came to England in 1863).

  136. PlasticPaddy says

    Jumbo and gumbo seem to have roots in African languages (or to be African-like), so this is not the case of adding an o on the end of a meaningful segment.

  137. David Eddyshaw says

    The Twi name for “boy born on a Sunday” is indeed Kwasi.

    “Jumbo” seems to have been invented by P T Barnum, rather than being from any actual African word.
    “Gumbo” is kosher (well, Kimbundu), though


  138. J.W. Brewer says

    If “jumbo” in the relevant sense is actually attested as early as 1818, that would cast some doubt on the coined-by-Barnum (born 1810) theory, although maybe he was a precocious lad?

    “Mumbo jumbo” (with a somewhat different referent than it now has and FWIW a specifically African one) can in the google books corpus be found in English books as early as 1760 and in French and German books before that.

  139. I’d assumed the elephant (born in Sudan) was named for jambo, ‘hello’ in Swahili, because if a European knew one word in an East African language, that would have been it. Swahili jumbe ‘chief’, also proposed, seems a stretch to me.

    Per WP, the elephant was named by a London Zoo zookeeper, Anoshan Anathajeyasri. That was all before Barnum bought him.

  140. J.W. Brewer says

    I have probably previously mentioned that circa 1975 when I was in 4th or 5th grade at the American School in Japan, our daily Japanese lessons were supplemented with a one-off lesson in Swahili which consisted in its entirety of being told that “jambo” meant “hello.” I can’t reconstruct the context, if any, that might have made this less than totally random.

  141. @Y: Your first sentence is exactly what I had always thought about the naming of Jumbo.

  142. J.W. Brewer says

    It may be unrelated, but the earlier mentions of “mumbo jumbo” are from nowhere near the Swahili-speaking areas, as e.g. this account of a mid-1790’s encounter by Mungo Park somewhere in or near modern Senegal. https://dianabuja.wordpress.com/2010/06/28/mungo-park-discovers-mumbo-jumbo-in-18th-century-west-africa/

    This was already a half-century after the first occurrence of “mumbo jumbo” in continental European sources likely also to be based on West rather than East African sources.

    Come to think of it, though, what’s up with the -o in Mungo? I don’t think of that as a common Scottish given name. Did anyone ever use him to set a punchline like “mingo mango mungo”?

  143. It’s Brittonic name (after patron saint of Glasgow).

    Predates Irish invasion, so can’t be explained from Gaelic.

  144. David Eddyshaw says

    You don’t come across many Munghi, admittedly, but (beside the saint) there is at least one famous one:


    (and, to my surprise, some namesakes.)

    “Mungo” was Kentigern’s pet name: WP suggests it’s Cumbric for Cymric fy nghu “my dear”, which is what I was told at school in Glasgow and is therefore eternally true.

  145. I see that in Cameroon “Mungo” is both the name of a river and the name of an ethnic group, with one presumably named for the other although the sequence is not clear from wikipedia. Evidence of the far-reaching influence of St. Kentigern, or sheer coincidence?

  146. David Eddyshaw says

    The Cameroonians are named from Mungo Jerry, as indeed is T S Eliot’s cat.

  147. John Emerson says

    And the band Mungo Jerry.

    William Burroughs repeatedly mentioned his St Louis origins, usually with some kind of TSE reference.


    “Well, MY son’s going to be a poet!”

    “Well that’s just T.S., Mrs. Eliot”.

  148. a punchline like “mingo mango mungo”


  149. The name Mingo, for the Ohio/West Virginia Iroquoians, comes from the Algonquian mingwe. It’s not remaekable compared to other Anglicizations of native names, but I wonder if that final -o wasn’t influenced by some sense of exoticism.

  150. @ David Eddyshaw
    You don’t come across many Munghi, admittedly, but (beside the saint) there is at least one famous one:

    You didn’t mention the best part of that, which is that Wikipedia actually has a disambiguation page for people named Mungo Park. So in addition to the 18th Century Scottish explorer, there are separate Wikipedia articles for the 19th Century Scottish golfer and his nephew,[*] a Scottish pioneer of Argentine golf.

    [*] Mungo Park, Jr. Bafflingly, his father (brother of Mungo, Sr.) was named Willie Park, Sr. (with another son named Willie Park, Jr.). So apparently you can be “Jr.” if any older male relative has that name, not just your father?

    (Mungo Park, Jr., clearly feeling the world didn’t have enough Mungos in it already, named one of his sons Mungo Park III.)

  151. David Marjanović says

    So apparently you can be “Jr.” if any older male relative has that name, not just your father?

    Well, the purpose is disambiguation, so I’d expect so…?

  152. You might expect so, but if you’ve grown up knowing only of sons so designated, it’s startling.

  153. David Marjanović says

    Well, I’m in the same situation, but I also hadn’t known of people named after their uncles in the first place…

  154. Phrase “can be” is a bit ambiguous because at least in the U.S. there isn’t any government authority enforcing precise rules for suffixes. There is certainly a reasonably well-known convention in American naming practices for “Homer Quincy Snodgrass Jr.” to be given only to the son of “Homer Quincy Snodgrass” with a nephew or grandson of the same name (w/o an intervening Jr.) being “Homer Quincy Snodgrass II,” but if particular families choose to deviate from the convention and use “Jr.” in those other situations there’s no real enforcement mechanism stopping them from doing so. Things are further complicated because of differing views about whether you keep the suffix you were born with your whole life or whether you readjust after the original bearer of the name dies, which may (or may not, depending on circumstances) reduce the need for disambiguation. (If the suffix is on your “official” gov’t identity documents it may be a bit of a hassle to change them, but there are other contexts where you can just shift usage unilaterally.)

  155. My wife’s very patrician New York (state) family never uses Jr. or Sr. but rather numerals. Like kings, the numbered individuals also ldon’t need to be immediate descendants. My father-in-law is August III, but August II was not his father but his grandfather. On the other hand, his father and eldest brother were Lewis Mark and Lewis Mark II, although they actually disambiguated them by the son being known solely by Mark.

  156. David Eddyshaw says

    “Pongo” (UK slang for a soldier, especially used by navy personnel) seems to be ultimately from Kikongo (or, as I should say, KONGO):


    The ape genus likewise.
    It may be another case of -o being substituted for the original final vowel Because Exotic, the original seemingly being mpongi.

    The slang meaning is usually given a quite different folk etymology (“wherever the army goes, the pong goes.”)

  157. Long ago I knew someone from an old New England family in which the first son of each generation was named ‘Augustus.’ They used a variety of diminutives to tell themselves apart: August, Augie, Gus and (the one I knew) Gusty.

  158. carl van vechten numbered his friends who had the same names – his letters are full of “Donald IV” and such…

  159. I was struck by the common US assumption that “Jnr” must be the son of “Snr”, and even more by the c.U.S.a. that they must have the same middle name. (Related to the c.U.S.a that everybody has precisely one middle name.) Thus “Frank Sinatra Jr.” is a mere stage name, akin to Ray Charles Robinson’s “Ray Charles”, since his middle name is Wayne and not Albert. Is there a US feminist named, say, Mary Smith whose daughter is Mary Smith Jr? If so, do they share a middle name?

    European golfers more recent than Mungo Park jnr include Christy O’Connor jnr (nephew of snr) and Gordon Brand Jnr (no relation of Gordon J. Brand). GBJ’s dubious-even-for-non-Americans “Jnr” was because, like all true Scotsmen, he had no middle name whose initial might distinguish him from GJB. He might have made one up, like JK Rowling; or gone with Gordon NMI Brand.

  160. @mollymooly: It’s not necessarily expected in America that Jr. and Sr. will have the same middle name. In most cases I have known of, the father snd son had different middle names. My old friend Mark Alan Lawrence IV had father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all named Mark Lawrence, but none of the four had the same middle name.

  161. Each of my three uncles (all American) had a son that shared his first name. In one case, the middle names were different, so no suffix was used (and they were known as Bob and Bobby until Bobby grew up and became Bob). In the other two cases, the middle names were the same, and one used “Jr.” (David and Davey, now Dave) and the other “II” (K.C. and Keith, no connection to my name). My parents both diverged from this practice of their elder siblings by giving me my father’s middle name as a first name (and my mother’s maiden name as a middle name).

  162. J.W. Brewer says

    Hey, our c.U.S.a.’s make up a more or less workable-in-practice system. Obviously it is suboptimal for those habituated to those conventions to be unable to imagine (should the issue arise) that different conventions might be in place among other peoples which might also be workable-in-practice, but I expect that a similar lack of imagination is common cross-culturally. FWIW, in my extended family (on my mother’s side) there is (or rather was – it stopped with my generation) a long-running convention that the first-born boy in each generation gets the same Christian name, but with a different middle name for disambiguation, thus eliminating (per the relevant c.U.S.a.) the need for disambiguating suffixes. The tradition started with an immigrant ancestor from Scotland who had exactly the same no-middle-name full name as his father (who never left Scotland) but middle names were thought mandatory once he married an American lass and they had American children. The NMI immigrant didn’t go by “Jr.” or “Jnr.” in the U.S., although for all I know maybe he would have if he’d never left Inverness and there was more of a need in context to disambiguate him from his dad? (It has proved difficult to trace the ancestry beyond the dad because he is one of two or three boys with the exact same NMI name born around the same time in Banffshire per the available public records and no one can figure out which one he is and therefore which set of parents per those records are the relevant ones for the next generation back in our family tree.)

  163. I have a female friend, in whose family the eldest daughters always receive the same very unusual first name. My friend has an older sister with no kids, so the friend’s daughter has the same first name as her aunt, grandmother, and great-grandmother. The rule was described to me as the name being given to the eldest girl in each generation, but I’m not sure what would have happened if my friend’s sister had had a daughter after my friend.

  164. John Emerson says

    The boxer George Foreman named all five of his sons George Edward Foreman. There’s a Jr., a III, a IV, a V, and a VI. Several also have nicknames.

  165. Cato the Younger (of Utica, Caesar’s enemy) was the great-grandson of Cato the Elder (the Censor, “Carthago delenda est”). Both of them were Marcus Porcius Cato, as were the intervening generations.

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