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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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Designer Reimagines the Spanish Alphabet With Only 19 Letters
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According to designer José de la O, the Spanish alphabet is too crowded. Letters like B and V and S and Z are hard to tell apart when spoken out loud, which makes for a language that's "confusing, complicated, and unpractical," per his design agency's website. His solution is Nueva Qwerty. As Co.Design reports, the "speculative alphabet" combines redundant letters into single characters, leaving 19 letters total.

In place of the letters missing from the original 27-letter Spanish alphabet are five new symbols. The S slot, for example, is occupied by one letter that does the job of C, Z, and S. Q, K, and C have been merged into a single character, as have I and Y. The design of each glyph borrows elements from each of the letters it represents, making the new alphabet easy for Spanish-speakers to learn, its designer says.

Speculative Spanish alphabet.
José de la O

By streamlining the Spanish alphabet, de la O claims he's made it easier to read, write, and type. But the convenience factor may not be enough to win over some Spanish scholars: When the Royal Spanish Academy cut just two letters (CH and LL) from the Spanish alphabet in 2010, their decision was met with outrage.

José de la O has already envisioned how his alphabet might function in the real world, Photoshopping it onto storefronts and newspapers. He also showcased the letters in two new fonts. You can install New Times New Roman and Futurysma onto your computer after downloading it here.

[h/t Co.Design]

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Big Questions
Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
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ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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