The word "gubernatorial" came into existence about 300 years ago, and has apparently been irritating people ever since. Recently, Boston Globe reader Mark Leonard apparently wrote in complaining about it, suggesting "governatorial" as a substitute for the "archaic and pompous" word. The Globe's Jan Freeman, writing in response, chronicles the longstanding dissatisfaction with "gubernatorial":
Richard Grant White, a hugely popular 19th-century language maven, denounced the word in 1870 as "a clumsy piece of verbal pomposity...pedantic, uncouth, and outlandish." Thirty years later, Ralcy H. Bell told his readers that only "pedants and 'small potatoes'" flaunted this big word. And Ambrose Bierce, in 1909, called gubernatorial "needless and bombastic." "Leave it to those who call a political office a 'chair,'" he urged. "'Gubernatorial chair' is good enough for them. So is hanging."
There are a couple of issues with the word "gubernatorial," points out Freeman. The first is that it seems to be a uniquely American word, which immediately "tainted it in the eyes of our insecure language police." The Brits discarded most of their 15th-century variations on the Latin gubernare, which is where our word comes from.
Another problem is the way it sounds. The New York Times' "in-house language guardian" finds it "stilted," but Freeman points out that there are many equally stiff words, like "opine" and "parley." Likewise there are similarly "long and lumpy" offerings like "indefatigable" and "discombobulation." Here's Freeman's idea:
Maybe our resistance to gubernatorial isn’t related to the old prejudices at all. Maybe it's just that the ignominy of goober, over the past half-century, has rubbed off on gubernatorial. Other words with the goo sound might also play a part: Gooey, googly, goofball, goofus, goombah, gooney bird...except for googol, there's not a lot of dignified restraint to be found among the dictionary's goo- entries.
Will our positive feelings about "Google" redeem the clumsy, awkward "gubernatorial"?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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