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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