29 November 2010

No such thing as a ‘trove’

I know it’s a living language. I know linguists’ job is to describe, not prescribe. But I hate the pseudonoun trove. Ain’t no such thing, folks.

WikiLeaks’s release of the State Department cables has caused yet another outbreak of ungrammatical “troves” in the American news media. The Washington Post writes that “Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi has insisted he only throws elegant, dignified soirees at his villas and not wild parties described by a Rome-based U.S. diplomat in a cable contained in the Wikileaks trove.” The Los Angeles Times writes, “The morning after the first disclosures of WikiLeaks’ trove of diplomatic cables, buzz in Israel was somewhere between relief and vindication, and officials were being thankful by keeping quiet.” I could go on: everyone seems to be calling the collection of cables a “trove” (except, apparently, for the British: the BBC calls it “a cache of 250,000 secret messages.”) But what the hell is a trove?

Trove, obviously, is short for treasure trove. What is it, then, a unit of measurement for treasure? Or perhaps a collective noun: herd of sheep, school of fish, flock of birds ‒ trove of treasure?

Nope. It’s an adjective.

Treasure trove is a common law concept; the term itself is a corruption, via Law French, of trésor trouvé (found treasure). Basically, it refers to ownerless treasure which is found and (traditionally) becomes the property of the finder; a BBC News article from February illustrates the technical use of the term: “Bracelet Found in Vale of Glamorgan Is Treasure Trove”.

Treasure trove, therefore, is treasure which has been trove (i.e., trouvé: found). There’s no such thing as “a trove”, just treasure.

We don’t normally place adjectives after nouns in English, and when we do they are usually part of fossilized expressions which are carryovers from Law French, like court martial (a court which is martial) or attorney general (an attorney who is general). Since they don’t follow the usual English word order, these terms tend to trip people up ‒ and those particular about English usage (pedant is such an unkind word!) read attorney generals instead of attorneys general and get very worked up: we’re not dealing with generals who are attorneys, but attorneys who are general.

Incidentally, Wikipedia’s article on such adjectives has a link to an amusing Onion piece from a decade ago: “William Safire Orders Two Whoppers Junior”. (I have to note, however, that Mr. Safire would never really have said “A majority of Burger King patrons operate under the fallacious assumption that the plural is ‘Whopper Juniors’,” though: surely he would have said “a majority of Burger King patrons operates.” I’m torn as to whether that was a mere slipup by The Onion or a particularly clever meta joke.)

Speaking of generals, though, sometimes the battle is just lost. Back in the days of yore, a military company had three important officers: the captain, his lieutenant, and the sergeant major (the plural of which is sergeants major, naturally). When you got a bunch of companies assembled together to form an army, you had to have an overall leader, who was the captain general ‒ the captain not of any particular company, but the captain of the army in general. Naturally, he had his own lieutenant ‒ the lieutenant general ‒ and a sergeant major ‒ the sergeant major general. Eventually those got shortened to just general, lieutenant general, and major general ‒ and with the top rank being reduced to general without the noun it once modified, it was inevitable that lieutenant general would be reanalyzed from “a lieutenant who is general” to “a general of the lieutenant sort.” Now we write not lieutenants general but lieutenant generals, and not even William Safire could do anything about it.

By the way, this indirectly explains why lieutenant generals outrank major generals despite majors outranking lieutenants ‒ something that I personally found mystifying when I first learned my military ranks. Colonels also got their own lieutenants and sergeants major, and the colonel’s sergeant major (now just called major) was under the colonel’s lieutenant (lieutenant colonel) but higher than a captain’s lieutenant (now just lieutenant). It’s all perfectly logical.

1 comment:

  1. Very erudite and yet makes for such compelling reading. Thank you - anil, Singapore.