Word Court


Adeline Green, of Glendale, California, writes, "It seems to me that Democrat as an adjective is used consciously by Republicans as a term of disparagement. I am amazed that Democrats have not made an issue of this, for I believe that the use of the word in this manner has a subtle influence. Perhaps there should be an open discussion of what is either a nasty attitude or bad grammar."

Actually, Democrats, or at least leftists, do every now and then try to make an issue of this. For instance, earlier this year the syndicated columnist Molly Ivins wrote, "'Death tax' is what Republicans call the estate tax. It's one of their 'cute' things, like saying 'the Democrat Party.'" Republicans, too, have been known to object to this usage, which was popularized by Senator Joseph McCarthy. For one, William F. Buckley Jr.—a man as solidly Republican as he is astute about language—protested against the term late last year, declaring in National Review, "I have an aversion to 'Democrat' as an adjective. Dear Joe McCarthy used to do that, and received a rebuke from this at-the-time 24-year-old. It has the effect of injecting politics into language, and that should be avoided. Granted there are difficulties, as when one desires to describe a 'democratic' politician, and is jolted by possible ambiguity. But English does that to us all the time, and it's our job to get the correct meaning transmitted without contorting the language."

Betty L. Pugh, of Martinsburg, West Virginia, writes, "My mother, who majored in English in college, pronounced the word sorbet 'SOR-bet,' and so did I until a waiter, rather rudely, informed me that yes, the raspberry 'sor-BAY' was available. Since that time I have found that almost everyone, including a TV advertiser, says 'sor-BAY.' My Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, however, tells me that the correct pronunciation is 'SOR-bet' and the word, like sherbet, is of Turkish origin. Would you comment?"

Gladly. Webster's Tenth, the successor to your dictionary, has switched over to giving the "sor-BAY" pronunciation first, which amounts to Merriam-Webster's having changed its mind about which pronunciation it prefers—or, at least, perceives as more usual. Nonetheless, some other recent American dictionaries continue to favor "SOR-bet." I confess that I can't recall ever hearing anyone pronounce the word this way, and I was first served sorbet many years ago, in a fancy French restaurant: the waiter presented each of us at the table with a dollop of very sweet fruit-flavored ice as a "palate cleanser" between the appetizer and the main course. Not until much later did I learn that sorbets intended to cleanse the palate needn't be sugary and French waiters needn't be pretentious.

In that long-ago waiter's defense, let it be said that although the word is indeed of Turkish origin, sherbet is the word that is thought to have come to us more or less directly from the Turkish, whereas sorbet seems to have arrived in English by way of first Italian and then French. Nonetheless, I think I am going to start pronouncing the word "SOR-bet." Now that you've made me aware of this pronunciation, I find its straightforwardly Anglophone sound refreshing—almost as if the word itself were a palate cleanser.

Anne White, of Virginia Beach, Virginia, writes, "I have come across a new phrase, and I wonder if you have any insight into its meaning. I never heard it in New York City, but since moving here I have heard two people use feeling froggy."

As the Dictionary of American Regional English project got under way, four decades ago, researchers set to work administering language questionnaires to people all over the country. In 1969 an item about how a person who was "feeling in the best of health or spirits" might complete the sentence "I'm feeling ____" elicited the word froggy from a respondent in Georgia. Although the expression has never especially caught on, you'll be interested to know that in September of last year feels froggy appeared in the New York Daily News, and this past spring feeling froggy turned up in USA Today. As might be expected with slang or informal language that doesn't have wide currency and can't be found in most dictionaries, the expression's meaning, um, hops around a bit from one user to the next. Not only can froggy mean "chipper" or "frisky," as the DARE defines it, but in recent publications-database citations it often seems to be conveying an idea more nearly akin to "restless" or "lucky." These days a typical use might go something like this: "Feeling froggy? Then leap."

Do you have a language question or dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send e-mail to MsGrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court. Ms. Grammar is also on the Web, at courtrecord.

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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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