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26 Unusual Plurals That Work Like "Attorneys General"

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The usual way to modify a noun in English is to put an adjective before the noun: nice view, tasty treat, hot day. But every once in a while, we put the adjective after the noun. Often this is because it comes from a language where adjective-after-noun is the norm, namely French. Much of our legal and military terminology comes from French and Latin, and some noun-adjective compounds, like “attorney general,” came with it. This leads to a situation where the act of putting the modifier after the noun becomes a mark of authority and importance, even with regular English words.

Time immemorial, words unspoken, lands unknown (and phrases similar) take on a loftier quality than their mundane reversed counterparts. It also leads to some plurals that work in unexpected ways. Here are 26 of them.

1. Attorneys general

Also postmasters, secretaries, consuls, and surgeons general. The “general” in these compounds originated as an adjective opposed to “special” or “particular.” In the UK it is commonly pluralized as “attorney generals,” but in the US we have decided to dig in our etymological heels and make an example of this plural within a compound.

2. Courts-martial

Here “martial” is the adjective for military. So “courts-martial” is preferred, but “court-martials” is also acceptable.

3. Notaries public

“Notary publics” is also used, but “notaries public” sounds that much more official.

4. Senators elect

“Elect” is one of those Latin-flavored adjectives that make everything seem a touch more important.

5. Sergeants major

“Sergeant majors” is also acceptable.

6. Sums total

This was more common in the 19th century, before “total” became a noun.

7. Fees simple

In legal terms a fee (related to “fief”) is an owned piece of land, and “simple” is an adjective meaning without complications, free and clear from other claims on it.

8. Heirs apparent

Heirs apparent (first in line regardless of whether anyone else will be born) have a leg up on heirs presumptive (first in line unless any heirs apparent are born).

9. Bodies politic

Over the centuries “body politic” has been used to refer to offices held by individuals that are passed down through succession (King, Bishop, Abbot), society considered as a whole, or the state/nation. In each case, “politic” is an adjective.

10. Knights-errant

The “errant” in “knight-errant”—that staple of medieval literature, the wandering, adventure-seeking knight—goes back to the same root as “itinerant” and “itinerary,” Latin iter, journey.

11. Poets laureate

“Laureate” is an adjective from the Latin for “crowned with a laurel.” Careful with this one, though. Don’t go crazy and start saying “Nobels laureate.” A “poet laureate” is a poet, but a Nobel laureate is not a Nobel. Use “Nobel laureates.” And if you want to seem less hifalutin’, use “poet laureates” too.

12. Professors emeriti

One “professor emeritus,” two “professors emeritus.” But if you want to go whole hog, use “professors emeriti” with the Latin plural adjective. Your professors emeriti will love it.

13. Personae non gratae

There are a few acceptable ways to pluralize “persona non grata,” the Latin term for unwelcome person. It’s often used as a whole descriptive phrase for a plural (“they were persona non grata”) or pluralized in English (personas non grata). The proper, full-on Latin plural (“persona” being a feminine noun) is “personae non gratae.”

14. Curricula vitae

“Curriculum vitae” means “course of life” in Latin. Some go with “curriculums vitae” on this, while others take up the Latin plural “curricula vitae.” And a few push it a little too far with “curriculum vitarum” (courses of lives). When in doubt, use "CVs."

15. Culs-de-sac

“Cul-de-sac” comes from the French for “bottom of a bag” – that’s “bottom” as in “booty.” Cul-de-sacs is a perfectly acceptable plural in English, but culs-de-sac has a little more je ne sais quoi.

16. Agents provocateurs

In this French phrase for infiltrators trying to stir things up, both the noun and the adjective take an ‘s’.

17. Femmes fatales

Likewise for this one.

18. Coups d’état

A coup is a blow or strike. In English we follow the French way of not pronouncing the “p” in “coup d’état,” and in the plural, we add another unpronounced French letter just for good measure. (Same for “coups de grace.”)

19. Forces majeures

A legal term for “act of God” or unforeseen major disaster. Again, both the noun and the adjective get pluralized.

20. Films noirs

“Film noirs” is perfectly good English. “Films noir” is a commonly used hybrid. “Films noirs” is how to do it à la française.

21. Battles royal

Be advised: Don’t try this in the world of professional wrestling, where it’s “battle royals.”

22. Rights-of-way

There are a whole set of English words that are not exactly of the form “noun adjective” but they have a noun followed by a modifier of some kind, usually a prepositional phrase. In these cases, the plural can go on the end, or on the noun.

23. Mothers-in-law

24. Sleights-of-hand

25. Editors-in-chief

26. Johnnies-come-lately

English has no problem turning even bigger phrases into nouns and pluralizing them the normal way (“ne’er-do-wells” “forget-me-nots”), but when there’s a noun inside a set phrase, we get unsure of ourselves. “Johnny-come-latelies” works, but so does the “Johnnies” version. (See also, “sticks-in-the-mud,” “Jacks-in-the-box”).

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Beyond “Buffalo buffalo”: 9 Other Repetitive Sentences From Around The World
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Famously, in English, it’s possible to form a perfectly grammatical sentence by repeating the word buffalo (and every so often the place name Buffalo) a total of eight times: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo essentially means “buffalo from Buffalo, New York, who intimidate other buffalo from Buffalo, New York, are themselves intimidated by buffalo from Buffalo, New York.” But repetitive or so-called antanaclastic sentences and tongue twisters like these are by no means unique to English—here are a few in other languages that you might want to try.

1. “LE VER VERT VA VERS LE VERRE VERT” // FRENCH

This sentence works less well in print than Buffalo buffalo, of course, but it’s all but impenetrable when read aloud. In French, le ver vert va vers le verre vert means “the green worm goes towards the green glass,” but the words ver (worm), vert (green), vers (towards), and verre (glass) are all homophones pronounced “vair,” with a vowel similar to the E in “bet” or “pet.” In fact, work the French heraldic word for squirrel fur, vair, in there somewhere and you’d have five completely different interpretations of the same sound to deal with.

2. “CUM EO EO EO EO QUOD EUM AMO” // LATIN

Eo can be interpreted as a verb (“I go”), an adverb ("there," "for that reason"), and an ablative pronoun (“with him” or “by him”) in Latin, each with an array of different shades of meaning. Put four of them in a row in the context cum eo eo eo eo quod eum amo, and you’ll have a sentence meaning “I am going there with him because I love him.”

3. “MALO MALO MALO MALO” // LATIN

An even more confusing Latin sentence is malo malo malo malo. On its own, malo can be a verb (meaning “I prefer,” or “I would rather”); an ablative form of the Latin word for an apple tree, malus (meaning “in an apple tree”); and two entirely different forms (essentially meaning “a bad man,” and “in trouble” or “in adversity”) of the adjective malus, meaning evil or wicked. Although the lengths of the vowels differ slightly when read aloud, put all that together and malo malo malo malo could be interpreted as “I would rather be in an apple tree than a wicked man in adversity.” (Given that the noun malus can also be used to mean “the mast of a ship,” however, this sentence could just as easily be interpreted as, “I would rather be a wicked man in an apple tree than a ship’s mast.”)

4. “FAR, FÅR FÅR FÅR?” // DANISH

Far (pronounced “fah”) is the Danish word for father, while får (pronounced like “for”) can be used both as a noun meaning "sheep" and as a form of the Danish verb , meaning "to have." Far får får får? ultimately means “father, do sheep have sheep?”—to which the reply could come, får får ikke får, får får lam, meaning “sheep do not have sheep, sheep have lambs.”

5. “EEEE EE EE” // MANX

Manx is the Celtic-origin language of the Isle of Man, which has close ties to Irish. In Manx, ee is both a pronoun (“she” or “it”) and a verb (“to eat”), a future tense form of which is eeee (“will eat”). Eight letter Es in a row ultimately can be divided up to mean “she will eat it.”

6. “COMO COMO? COMO COMO COMO COMO!” // SPANISH

Como can be a preposition (“like,” “such as”), an adverb (“as,” “how”), a conjunction (“as”), and a verb (a form of comer, “to eat”) in Spanish, which makes it possible to string together dialogues like this: Como como? Como como como como! Which means “How do I eat? I eat like I eat!”

7. “Á Á A Á Á Á Á.” // ICELANDIC

Á is the Icelandic word for river; a form of the Icelandic word for ewe, ær; a preposition essentially meaning “on” or “in;” and a derivative of the Icelandic verb eiga, meaning “to have,” or “to possess.” Should a person named River be standing beside a river and simultaneously own a sheep standing in or at the same river, then that situation could theoretically be described using the sentence Á á á á á á á in Icelandic.

8. “MAI MAI MAI MAI MAI” // THAI

Thai is a tonal language that uses five different tones or patterns of pronunciation (rising, falling, high, low, and mid or flat) to differentiate between the meanings of otherwise seemingly identical syllables and words: glai, for instance, can mean both “near” and “far” in Thai, just depending on what tone pattern it’s given. Likewise, the Thai equivalent of the sentence “new wood doesn’t burn, does it?” is mai mai mai mai mai—which might seem identical written down, but each syllable would be given a different tone when read aloud.

9. “THE LION-EATING POET IN THE STONE DEN” // MANDARIN CHINESE

Mandarin Chinese is another tonal language, the nuances of which were taken to an extreme level by Yuen Ren Chao, a Chinese-born American linguist and writer renowned for composing a bizarre poem entitled "The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den." When written in its original Classical Chinese script, the poem appears as a string of different characters. But when transliterated into the Roman alphabet, every one of those characters is nothing more than the syllable shi:

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

The only difference between each syllable is its intonation, which can be either flat (shī), rising (shí), falling (shì) or falling and rising (shǐ); you can hear the entire poem being read aloud here, along with its English translation.

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'Froyo,' 'Troll,' and 'Sriracha' Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
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Looking for the right word to describe the time you spend drinking before heading out to a party, or a faster way to say “frozen yogurt?" Merriam-Webster is here to help. The 189-year-old English vocabulary giant has just added 250 new words and definitions to their online dictionary, including pregame and froyo.

New words come and go quickly, and it’s Merriam-Webster’s job to keep tabs on the terms that have staying power. “As always, the expansion of the dictionary mirrors the expansion of the language, and reaches into all the various cubbies and corners of the lexicon,” they wrote in their announcement.

Froyo is just one of the recent additions to come from the culinary world. Bibimbap, a Korean rice dish; choux pastry, a type of dough; and sriracha, a Thai chili sauce that’s been around for decades but has just recently exploded in the U.S., are now all listed on Merriam-Webster's website.

Of course, the internet was once again a major contributor to this most recent batch of words. Some new terms, like ransomware (“malware that requires the victim to pay a ransom to access encrypted files”) come from the tech world, while words like troll ("to harass, criticize, or antagonize [someone] especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts”) were born on social media. Then there’s the Internet of Things, a concept that shifts the web off our phones and computers and into our appliances.

Hive mind, dog whistle, and working memory are just a few of the new entries to receive the Merriam-Webster stamp of approval. To learn more about how some words make it into the dictionary while others get left out, check these behind-the-scenes secrets of dictionary editors.

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