Posts Tagged ‘language’

Foreigners Have a Different Name for Your Town

21 October 2011

You’ve heard of Calcutta, right? What about Kolkata? It’s the same place, pretty much the same name, but spelled differently. Indians didn’t think “Calcutta” was a cool name, so they changed it. “Calcutta” was what the British Empire called the city, and the masses of actual Indians who live around there want to assert their ownership by giving it a home-grown name.

I can understand that. The thing is, I don’t have any problem with the name “Calcutta”. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s a British rendition. The British did invent English, and that’s the language I know best, so I’ll go with their choice. It’s not a political decision, just a natural linguistic leaning. Anyway, we’ve been calling it “Calcutta” around here for a long time now, and I’m going to keep calling it that. If you know what I mean when I say “Calcutta”, then the name works fine. If you know what I mean but you also think I’m wrong not to call it “Kolkata”, then that’s your problem.

Likewise, “Bombay” is a good enough name for what Indians now call “Mumbai”, and “Peking” was a good enough name for “Beijing”. Why should I let China tell me what to call their city when I’m speaking English to Americans, and we all have been saying it our way all our lives? When I learn Chinese, then I’ll listen to what Chinese people tell me about pronunciation.

No one ever tries to get English speakers to call Vienna “Wien”, and, Olympics aside, we don’t feel the need to call Turin “Torino”.

I do think BBC newsreaders sound funny when they say “Mary-land” for the state we call “merrilind”.


Defending the Adjective “Democratic”

9 December 2008

I think it was Al Franken whom I first heard remarking that Republicans like to say “the Democrat party”, to be annoying to Democrats. That is indeed what they do. It would be merely silly, except it feeds just the kind of linguistic sloppiness that bugs me, apart from political sensibilities.

Now there is a growing frequency of “Democrat” as an adjective. Let me be clear: “Democratic” is the adjective that is applicable to a member or event or political action of the Democratic party. “Democrat” is a noun that may be used for a member of the party. Not only is “Democrat Party” a bastardized name, but “Democrat candidate”, “Democrat bill”, “Democrat advantage”, and “Democrat spin” are all bastardized language. Also, not only Republican partisans but also neutral news agencies and pollsters are guilty.

It takes a poorly schooled writer to be confused by this, but some subtler cases catch lot of highly trained people. If you classify the population by their preferred party and the intensity of that preference, you might well classify their leanings as “strongly Democratic”, but “strongly Democrat” is wrong. Furthermore, even though it is fairly conventional to shorten the term to “strong Democratic”, “strong Democrat” is not right. Remember, you are talking about people’s preference, not which party they belong to. They can call themselves independent, libertarian, or even Republican and still express a “Democratic” leaning, be it “strong Democratic” or “weak Democratic”. “Strong Democrat” should mean a Democrat (member of the Democratic Party) who is strong in some way, perhaps in the sense of having good popular support.

Compare to a characterization of people as “strong pro-life” or “strong pro-choice”. I do not think I have ever seen anyone label these categories as “strong pro-lifer” and “strong pro-choicer”. Those would be noun phrases describing individuals. The category labels are adjective phrases.

Sorry, this is the kind of point that will elude many people, maybe most. The label for a category of people, and a label for an individual in that category—what is the difference? some will ask. There is a difference. Call it a petty and pedantic peeve of mine, if you will, but do not chalk it up to witless reflexive defense of the Democratic Party. It hits my language-dude nerve.