The Panama Papers: losing our inflections

While others sort out the legal and political implications, the Monitor’s language columnist has her eye on what the megaleak means for adjectives.

Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters
Protestors hold posters reading "Out" during a demonstration calling on Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to resign after two members of his government were named in the Panama Papers leak scandal, outside the office of the Prime Minister in Valletta, Malta.

Out of the way, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. Here comes the Big Data tsunami of the Panama Papers!

The leak – or hack – of 11.5 million documents is reckoned to be the largest ever. Others can sort out the legal and political implications. What I noticed first was that everyone is calling them the Panama Papers, not the Panamanian papers.

“Ah, c’mon,” you may respond. “Nobody would say ‘Panamanian Papers.’   ” My point exactly: We’re losing our adjectival inflections, or adjectival suffixes – the endings that turn nouns into adjectives.

In the 1870s, France and Prussia, the latter not yet unified into Germany, fought a conflict that went into the history books as the Franco-Prussian War. If it were fought today, it would likely be headlined as the France-Prussia War.

Panama Papers may have caught on so quickly by analogy with the famous New York Times leak of 1971. When a Boston radio host recently misspoke and referred to this record leak as “the Pentagon Papers,” anyone could understand the slip. 

Not even a grammar nerd like me would have called them the Pentagonal Papers. They were from the Pentagon; they weren’t themselves five-sided. (The common American pronunciation of this polygon sounds like the past participle of an imaginary verb, Pentago: “Where did half a trillion dollars of the federal budget go?” “It’s all Pentagon.” But I digress.)

Mossack Fonseca, the center of the scandal, is sometimes called a “Panamanian” law firm by news organizations outside the United States, but also The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Voice of America. Other sources, though, such as USA Today and the Monitor’s own editorial page, are going simply with “Panama” law firm.

Recently I was to introduce a speaker at a professional gathering. Reviewing her résumé with her, I noted that one of her fields of expertise was “organization development.” Hmm, I asked, “organization” and not “organizational”? (A generational thing? A couple of friends of mine in this field refer to themselves as “organizational development psychologists.” Some quick mental math suggested they are old enough to be, well, her uncles.)

The woman responded that the distinction is an issue in the field but opted firmly for “organization development.”

“Organization” in this usage is an attributive noun – a noun used as an adjective. The decision whether to use an attributive noun or an adjective helps capture the distinction between, say, a newspaper’s Canada correspondent, as I was for a few years when I reported on Canada, and its Canadian correspondent, which I could never be because I’m an American.

I see a movement toward attributive nouns even when a straight-up adjective seems in order, though. I see “politics editor” instead of “political editor” and “politics professor” rather than “political scientist.” Maybe people think a “political scientist” is a biologist who makes nice with the dean to get more research funding?

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