April 04, 2005

Hartman's Law confirmed again

For April 1 this year, Paulo Ordoveza, the author of the excellent How Now, Brownpau? weblog, organized a March to End "Beg the Question" Abuse:

For too long, we linguistic pedants have cringed, watching this phrase used, misused, and abused, again, and again, and again. "This begs the question..." we read in the editorials, see on TV, hear on the radio, (perhaps even read in one of those newfangled "web blogs") and we must brace ourselves as the ignoramii of modern society literally ask a question after the phrase.

It was inevitable, though, that Paulo should fall victim to Hartman's Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation: "any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one eror". [I'm extending Hartman's Law to cover "usage" as well.]

Paulo's downfall was pluralizing ignoramus as "ignoramii". The error was immediately pointed out by Termite in a comment on Metafilter, and it's such an obvious mistake that we can safely assume Paulo did it on purpose, as a joke. However, for those who might have been taken in by his gambit, I'll explain.

The fake plural "ignoramii" exhibits two mistakes at once. To begin with, ignoramus is not a Latin noun. It's the first person plural present indicative of the verb ignoro, and it means "we do not know" or "we take no notice of". Once it was borrowed into English and (later) made into a noun, its plural became simply "ignoramuses". And even if ignoramus had been a noun in Latin, its plural would have been something like "ignorami" or "ignoramūs", depending on its declension, but never "ignoramii".

As the OED explains, the English use of ignoramus originated as

The endorsement formerly made by a Grand Jury upon a bill or indictment presented to them, when they considered the evidence for the prosecution insufficient to warrant the case going to a petty jury. Hence quasi-n. or ellipt., esp. in the phrases to find, return, bring in (an) ignoramus [...] Also transf. an answer which admits ignorance of the point in question; fig. a state of ignorance. (The words now used in the finding of the Grand Jury are ‘not a true bill’, or ‘not found’ or ‘no bill’.)

It later came to be used to mean "an ignorant person". The OED says that

[In reference to the origin of this, cf. Ruggle's Ignoramus (acted 1615) ‘written to expose the ignorance and arrogance of the common lawyers’, in which ‘Ignoramus’ is the name of a lawyer. The word occurs also in the following title, evidently in legal connexion: ‘The Case and Arguments against Sir Ignoramus, of Cambridge, in his Readings at Staple's Inn’, by R. Callis, Serjeant at Law (1648). See also quot. 1634 below.]

a1616 BEAUMONT Vertue of Sack in Poems (1653) Nj, Give blockheads beere, And silly Ignoramus, such as think There's powder-treason in all Spanish drink.
1634 Grammar Warre Dvij, All students of Ignorance, with these bussards of Barbary, Ignoramus and Dulman his Clearke, were..exiled for euer out of all Grammar; and all false Latine was euer after confiscated to their vse.
1641 Vox Borealis in Harl. Misc. (Malh.) IV. 434 So many of their commanders are ignoramusses in the very vocables of art.
1675 COCKER Morals 8 By verbal sounds, who makes his small parts famous, But proves himself the greater Ignoramus.
1683 KENNETT tr. Erasm. on Folly 48 Who is so silly as to be Ignoramus to a Proverb? 1790 COWPER Lett. 10 May, So ignorant am I and by such ignoramuses surrounded.
1853 C. BRONTË Villette vi, I am quite an ignoramus, I know nothing--nothing in the world.

So watch those fake Latin plurals -- you too might be "exiled for euer out of all Grammar; and all false Latine ... euer after confiscated to [your] vse".

[Update: Benjamin Zimmer observes that this law was independently discovered by two other people at about the same time, and thus has two other names besides "Hartman's Law":

" McKean's Law" (after Verbatim editor Erin McKean):
Call it McKean's Law: Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error.

"Skitt's Law" (after alt.usage.english contributor "Skitt"):
Skitt's Law, a corollary of Murphy's Law, variously expressed as "any post correcting an error in another post will contain at least one error itself" or "the likelihood of an error in a post is directly proportional to the embarrassment it will cause the poster."


Posted by Mark Liberman at April 4, 2005 12:06 AM