I’m inured to the standard grounds for complaint about the Decline of the English Language: poor grammar, sloppy punctuation, IM-speak, and the like. I accept that people have an irrational devotion to the forms of what they perceive as “the language” (ignorant as they are of the unavoidable diversity and mutability of all languages), and I have learned to view such jeremiads with a tolerant, if wry, smile. But the recent controversy in the Boston City Council over the spelling of council(l)or floors me. According to a Boston Globe story by Matt Viser, “the question of one L or two is very serious”:

About half of the council’s 13 members say the word should be spelled with two Ls, a British spelling that has been used in city documents for more than a century. Tradition dictates it, they say.
Some, like Council President Michael Flaherty and Councilor John Tobin, defend the position with some ferocity. Boston officialdom appears to support them, with most signs and placards in City Hall spelling it with two Ls, as does the city charter and the Oxford English Dictionary.
Webster’s New World Dictionary prefers the one-L version, however, and newer, younger councilors are using one L as a symbol of breaking from an old, hide-bound kind of politics…
For new members of the board, it is a rite of passage, among the first decisions they make when coming into office and requesting their business cards. Will they accept tradition, or try and chart a new course?…
“Those new young guys, they’ve just got no respect,” said Tobin, whose staff for several years mocked him by giving him the nickname “Double L.”
“I will not be part of the dumbing down of the English language,” he said.

Spelling it councilor is “the dumbing down of the English language”? I truly cannot wrap my head around this concept. Ah well, at least the fact they’re arguing about something so trivial shows they have nothing more serious to worry about.

I got the story from Ben Zimmer at Language Log, where you will find more details on the one-l spelling, which “was apparently one of Noah Webster’s many attempts at distinguishing American orthography from the British model.”


  1. Though languages may exhibit “unavoidable diversity and mutability,” I’m not convinced that this diversity should be celebrated. Most of the people I’ve met who indulge in unrestrained orthographic invention also indulge in unrestrained nonsense when it comes to articulating a thought.
    And as a practical matter, unless one’s dealings are limited to linguists and the orthographically challenged, the results to be obtained by expressing oneself in the “standard” orthography are usually superior to those obtained when one expresses oneself just hwatever weigh.
    This of course doesn’t resolve the problem when two “standard” orthographies, British and American, come into contact, as is happening ever more frequently on the internet. In that regard I am biorthographic, which is what I recommend to the good people of Boston.
    Oh, but we were discussing the fetishization of orthography. Now about “habañero” …

  2. Ah, but “habañero” is not just a matter of orthography (the sound is affected), and it’s not a choice between competing accepted spellings — the one with the tilde is (for the present) unequivocally incorrect, though that of course may change if people insist on using it in large numbers. If it gets into the dictionaries, I’ll place it in the “personally distasteful linguistic changes” bin and try not to think about it. I don’t think there’s any comparison with the utterly trivial matter of one l or two in council(l)or, and surely you don’t either.

  3. ‘Habañero’ is definitely an affectation.
    The council(l)or issue, however, is a matter of power and status. Like writing ‘theatre’ instead of ‘theater’ or ‘centre’ instead of ‘center’ it is a means by which members of a given community distinguish themselves from others and lay claim to superior status. Whether that’s deserved is another issue.
    (On the issue of international vs. American orthography: A few years ago a student came to me because she was confused about the assigned reading on Chinese politics. One word in particular was troubling her because she didn’t know what it meant (and, apparently, it was easier for her to drive to my office and ask me instead of using a dictionary). Her question was ‘What is the “Sentray”?’ (Quasi-orthographic spelling.) Now I don’t know what a ‘sentray’ is, never having come across the term in all my reading. After some hemming and hawing it occured to me to ask her to spell it. She did: ‘c-e-n-t-r-e’. I then explained about the difference between international and American orthography. Then, once she’d gone, I told a couple of colleagues about it [one of them my department chair]. The chair asked me ‘What are you going to do about it?’ I replied, ‘go into a different the-at-ray’.)

  4. To the double-L-ers, the spelling councilor is a “personally distasteful linguistic change,” and they are expressing their unhappiness. Beyond Tobin’s dumb comment, I’m not sure why you’re floored by this.

  5. ‘Habañero’ is definitely not an affectation. I’ve never been aware of seeing or hearing the word spelled or pronounced any other way. And I grew up in Arizona.

  6. compania, compañero

  7. ‘Habañero’ is weird as hell, because apparently it’s unique to American English. To me Anglicizing non-English words is basically OK on the average, but this ‘Anglicization’ includes a tilde, which is not part of the American character-set. It’s just a quaint weirdness.
    ‘Compañero’ is normal Spanish and if somone wants to use it in English, great. But ‘habañero’is nothing. (As Hat said, if it makes it into the dictionaries, grin and bear it. But it hasn’t yet.)

  8. B. K. Gorse says

    One can also discern in the perhaps broader “Habañero” example that the extraneous, artificially dispensed tilde does not occur as a frequent modification (if at all, to certain knowledge) among actual native speakers of that or any regional Spanish dialect, but here appears to have taken its place during importation to other languages.
    Whereas causes of minute disparity between the respective orthographies of British English and its chief variant, ‘American’ English, stand to numerous reasons in the category of schism, the shift implicated in friction between Boston city administrators eschews other, more significant and spontaneous transformations. The alteration essentially produces a synonym, as before almost phonetically identical for speakers of both persuasions, save for the rhotic/non-rhotic element.
    If so, the extrusion, without ill phonological effects, of a single letter from a word that normally contains such letters together in bulk would, one could assume, naturally produce few seriously contentious departures compared to imprecision involving a calque or loan word. Since this would concern Official Moniker, however, dissention has escalated to impasse it appears, and integration has taken a secondary position on the agenda to bickering.
    [indeed Google offers verification; 500k+ results for “Habanero” stacked against 455(10^0) for “Habañero” (with Spanish selected as the “search language”)]

  9. So they live in Habania, caffeind?
    (Is caffeind the caffeine-supplying daemon that runs on a Unix server?)

  10. B. K. Gorse says

    Perhaps this would make for a felicitous occasion to harken over to Q-Pheevr’s exposition concerning “Åtmøspheric diäcritics”

  11. “Habañero” isn’t that baffling. The “ñ” is a character we don’t have in English (except through loan words, I guess), and so it’s more exotic and therefore fun/”Spanish” to write (and say, if the orthography is kept in mind). I’m glad we’re talking about it again, because I for one enjoy it. Habañero! Saxomophone!
    What I find worth mocking re the actual topic of the post isn’t the squabbling over the single-or-double-L itself, it’s the fact that it’s apparently distracting the council(l)ors from doing their jobs. If they were professionals, they’d put the issue aside and revisit it after solving all the real problems affecting actual Bostoñeros.

  12. ‘Habañero(a)’ would mean ‘of Havaña’. To my certain knowledge, there’s no Cuban city of that name. And love is still a rebel bird…

  13. I just came across “habañero” as the name of a hot sauce in a burrito shop in Boston yesterday. The Spanish speaking staff still pronounced it “habanero”. I suppose the use of a tilde is now just for show, similar to the way metal bands throw meaningless umlauts everywhere.

  14. Richard Hershberger says

    I mostly agree with Matt’s explanation of “Habañero”. It simply looks more Spanish, to the non-Spanish user. As for loan words, I take a tilde to be evidence that the word is not yet assimilated. Fully assimilated words convert the spelling to -ny-, e.g. “canyon”. Proper nouns can be trickier, resulting in highway signs with things like “La Canada”, but that is a slightly different matter.

  15. michael farris says

    “Fully assimilated words convert the spelling to -ny-, e.g.”
    I eaglery await the spelling Habanyero. Or maybe even (dare I hope?) Havanyero.

  16. There’s a street in Santa Barbara called Canon Perdido (‘lost cannon,’ and yes, there is a story, doubtless apocryphal, connected with it) pronounced by the locals kuh-NOHN per-DEE-doh. It should be Cañón and pronounced kuh-NYOHN, but I presume the English word cannon interfered with the retention of the otherwise irresistible tilde.

  17. The concept makes sense if you look at it from this viewpoint: some people seem to know less orthographic rules than others, thus they are stupider.
    Yeah, I think it’s B.S. too, but I guess in winning arguments one cant just ignore the system of logic because it doesn’t make sense– it’s still a system of logic that people use, and therefore something that has to be dealt with.
    As for the sudden appearance of an ñ in Habañero, well, maybe there’s something in it to do with Jalopeño. It’s not a rare occurrance for sounds from one idea to move to another related thing (someone today asked me if the Dutch had ‘colonated’ anywhere in SE Asia), and well, there’s the well cited bikini, monokini; margerita and the new mikerita (whatever it is, I don’t know), and the like.

  18. David Loyd George says

    Bostonians sily bugers.

  19. “Why use two Ls when you can use only one?” said Councilor Michael P. Ross. “I believe in conservation — and brevity.”
    Maybe that should be Michael P. Ros.

  20. Wow. I thought habañero was spelled “Scotch Bonnet”…

  21. Hmm, on second thoughts, about coveting that second L….could it be that the L looks something like a foot and that is the source of fetishization? Just noticing, is all.

  22. Siganus Sutor says

    Obviously, double-Ls haven’t always travel(l)ed well from one side of the Atlantic to the other.

  23. B. K. Gorse says

    Orthographic foreshortening (to the degree of omitting a single grapheme renowned already for its slim figure) in this instance obviously won’t deplete any usual acoustic characteristics of the particular word itself to the extent of also foreshortening its duration in utterance. One could say that this depends on the tendencies and discretion of the speaker, but for that matter, concern for reducing tedium such as already runs rampant throughout such disputes could include differentiating between the terms “duration” and “durability”.
    If the changeover bears potential for causing some terrific cataclysm concerning reconfiguration of city-office infrastructure, then (frivolity momentarily discounted) at least someone could tabulate the figures (say, during a severe lull in regular and important legislational activity) as a rebuttal. As for miniscule spelling discrepancies viz. older/newer documents or those which would differ according to personal preference, most anyone left to review the aforementioned could probably come to terms; both variations have proven sufficient to convey the associated concept.
    Whether at all either should supersede the other for accepted usage, however could depend on phonological tendencies (eg. alteration of a syllable nucleus to include a semivowel in the case of subtle spelling changes, ambiguity over which other contributors appear to have riffed on already) and/or any of the other factors of the usual nature governing language drift, both within and beyond the realm of a specific group of politicians.

  24. B. K. Gorse says

    If the issue weighs this heavily only because, in actuality, of measures to conserve ribbon, ink, toner, and other commodities precious to the laity and legislators of Boston, well perhaps anyone interested could simply futz with the Gestetner or, hmm, press gently instead…

  25. There’s an institution of learning near here that is referred to on official signposts as “Canada College”.
    Actually it should be pronounced “Cañada College”.
    There might be a certain difference in meaning?
    I’ve noticed that in the western US there is some effort made to conform to Spanish usage, whereas in Britain there is not. A nicety of usage in the western US is to refer to a large feline as a “jag-wahr”, whereas an expensive British automobile is called a “jag-yoo-ar”. I say “some effort” because one might perhaps rather say “yag-wahr” or “khag-war”.
    An interesting example is the California city Vallejo, which is almost always pronounced “vall-ay-hoh”, not “va-yay-hoh” or “vall-ay-joh”. Vallejo was the surname of an early Mexican landowner.
    The Spanish-speaking people who came to the Southwest US left traces of regional or non-standard usage. Near here there is “San Tomás Aquino Creek” where standard Spanish would have “Santo Tomás Aquino”. St. Thomas Aquinas in English.

  26. matematichica says

    A couple thoughts: I thought that the “santo” was shortened when used in conjunction with a name in Spanish; hence “San Tomás Aquino” would be perfectly standard Spanish. But I’m really just going by recollections of church and other place names.
    And as far as atmospheric diacritics goes, one of my least favorites is the extraneous accent that makes my family talk about “maTEH” instead of “MAteh” when they refer to bitter South American herbal beverages. But I suppose “mate” already exists as a (quite differently pronounced) English word. Ah well.

  27. Speaking of orthographic affectations, I think it’s hilarious that the official City of San Jose website writes its name as “San José”:
    The name is pronounced “sano-ZAY”, BTW.

  28. This is Boston, of all places, not Maryland, which was largely against independence. Are the Double L’s Patriots or still missing King George?

  29. It seems to me that they’re making it a sociological issue, more than an orthographic one. It’s tradition to spell it the British way, and breaking with tradition is, by analogy, a political statement.
    I find that when people spend a lot of ink arguing about something utterly trivial, there’s often something far less trivial lurking under the surface and not being explicitly mentioned.
    Or maybe I’m just being optimistic.

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