No violets shrinking among attorneys general

The appointment of a former chief law officer to a new post in Washington provides a reminder of the enduring influence French has on English.

A former attorney general made news the other day, just as I received a letter from someone who seems to be on a one-man campaign to have "attorney generals" accepted as the plural for the official's former job title. The letter surfaced from my in-box just as President Obama named Richard Cordray, former attorney general of Ohio, to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The political story here is that Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard law professor who first proposed the bureau, has riled the mandarins of the financial industry to the point where her nomination to the post would have been as combustible as those exploding toasters she talks about. The cynic, or maybe the idealist, might think that ability to rile the mandarins was just what was needed. I'll leave that to the editorial page.

For a words nerd, though, the story was an opportunity to collect some real-time data: Is usage changing? Is "attorneys general" just copy editor fussiness?

I soon got a quick confirmation that it was not. Carter Dougherty, a reporter at Bloomberg News, commented in an interview on WBUR's "Here and Now" program that Mr. Cordray has been a forceful consumer advocate, and that comes with the job: "Generally speaking, state attorneys general are no shrinking violets."

There it was: a sound bite from a source in a live interview, albeit one with another journalist. One data point does not, of course, make a trend. But a quick Google check shows 6.9 million hits for "attorneys general" versus 2.6 million for "attorney generals."

So why is attorneys general correct?

Nearly a millennium after the Norman Conquest, French still has an influence on English. In French, adjectives normally follow their nouns. It's a pattern we've followed in English for certain set phrases, attorney general among them. Attorney is the noun – rooted in a Latin word meaning one appointed to serve someone else. General is the adjective.

We know general as a noun referring to a senior military officer. But that sense of general began as an adjective. General, as in "commander of an army," dates to the 1570s, says the Online Etymology Dictionary. It was a shortening of captain general, borrowed from the French, capitaine général.

"The English adjective was affixed to civic officer designations by late 14c. to indicate superior rank and extended jurisdiction," the dictionary notes. Attorney general, which Merriam-Webster dates to 1585, is part of this trend. M-W pins general officer to 1681. Inspector general arrived in 1702, surgeon general in 1706.

The "shrinking violet" trope is a whole other story. To confirm the Dougherty quote, I Googled "attorneys general shrinking violets." Among those who turned up were Colorado Attorney Gen­eral John Suth­ers, of whom a blogger wrote, "Whereas some politicians would rather avoid fights, he eagerly wades into them, fists up"; his Mas­sachusetts counterpart, Martha Coakley, being needled for pressing garden clubs to file financial disclosure forms; and Houston City Attorney David Feld­man, who, a headline said, "admits he's no shrinking violet when it comes to opinions."

At some point "shrinking violet" may harden into a set phrase to include on business cards. For now, though, we can be sure there are no violets shrinking among attorneys general.

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