Word Court


Gerry Perkus, of Richardson, Texas, writes: “My wife, a Texan, and I, a New Yorker, have been engaged for some time in a dispute about the word pocketbook. I have always used pocketbook when referring to what she insists is a purse or a handbag. She avers that pocketbook is completely inappropriate, since her purse is not a book that she carries in her pocket. Can you help us resolve this?”

Ah, but what is a pocket, really? The word’s Anglo-Norman predecessors, poket and pokete, referred to a small bag. Originally, a pocket was more general-purpose than a purse, which was intended to hold money. Eventually—in the 1500s or thereabouts—pockets began to be “sewn into or on clothing, for carrying a purse or other small articles,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Pocketbook didn’t come into use until the 1600s, but almost as soon as it did, it was used to mean, among other things, “wallet,” or “money holder”—pretty much what purse originally meant, though by this point purse had acquired additional, general- purpose senses. The OED’s earliest citation for purse as something that would tend to belong to a woman, however, is dated 1955; its citations for pocketbook in this sense date back to 1830. Perhaps you should remind your wife that she doesn’t need a pocket to have pocket money nor a suit to pack a suitcase. Pocketbook is in the same, um, bag. It’s a perfectly good word—maybe even a better word for her than handbag if she, like me, slings the thing over her shoulder.

Kenneth Lipman, of Beverly Hills, Calif., writes: “There is a trend in the sciences toward dropping the -al suffix for adjectives. For example, psychological becomes psychologic, geological becomes geologic, and biological becomes biologic. When is it correct to use these new forms?”

Actually, none of those words is truly new—all six appear in my Webster’s New International Dictionary, second edition, from 1954. Nor are questions about -ic and -ical pairs new. H. W. Fowler wrote about them incisively in his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage, though most of the specific words he considered—such as casuistic and casuistical, diabolic and diabolical—don’t trouble us anymore. As Fowler pointed out, the words in some pairs—for example, politic and political, economic and economical—are distinct, with distinct meanings. That’s all to the good. “Every well established differentiation,” Fowler wrote, “adds to the precision and power of the language.” But he also argued that “when two forms coexist, and there are not two senses for them to be assigned to, it is clear gain that one should be got rid of.” Fowler wasn’t suggesting we choose either -ic or -ical and use it across the board. Rather, he was recommending we consider undifferentiated pairs with an eye to what “appears to be the winning side.”

So let’s do that. Determining the winner is much easier now, in the Internet era, than it was when Fowler had to read stacks of newspapers to search for evidence. Psychological is so far out ahead of psychologic that the latter is hardly worth talking about. Similarly with geological and geologic. If the U.S. Geological Survey ever changes its name, get back to me. But biologic does have a differentiated sense—not that it’s always used this way. It properly means, as Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines it, “a biological product (as a vaccine or blood serum) used in medicine.” Today we have biologic mesh, employed in surgery, and biologic drugs. Biologic agents are good; biological agents, the weaponry of biological warfare, are bad. Thus the word biologic is a rare thing: a once-useless variant whose time has come.

Do you have a language question or dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, P.O. Box 67375, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, or send e-mail to msgrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court. Ms. Grammar is also on the Web, at www.theatlantic.com/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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