February 13, 2005

Patriots and pronouns

On Friday I finally got my own set of Patriots stickers, which a few weeks ago were the source of a half an hour's amusement for my daughter and son-in-law and me. This was a game, over dinner, of Guess the Patriots: which ten personages are going to be celebrated as patriots on stickers? My daughter knew the answers, since she'd bought the stickers; her husband and I got to guess. You can play too.

Relevant background: the stickers (VA429 Patriots) are a product of the Hayes School Publishing Co. in Pittsburgh, who also produce stickers of the following sorts (among others):

Praise Words, Happy Faces, Winning Words, Apples, Happy Birthday, Smiling Stars (all these in English, Spanish, and French), various U.S. holidays, Careers, Good Health Habits, Dinosaurs, Pets, Music Masters, Famous African Americans, Reading Achievement, Bunnies, Hip Words, Teddy Bears, Race Cars

The patriots stickers are meant for use in U.S. schools, which means they're not about the New England Patriots (a pro football team of some note), with upper case, but about lower-case patriots, specifically American patriots. (My son-in-law, an Australian who's lived in the U.S. for only just over a year, was at an instant disadvantage.) Since there are political sensibilities at issue here, you can pretty much bet that the ten are going to include at least one woman and at least one African American. Ok: guess away!

Once I'd worked my way through dozens and dozens of guesses to the truly patriotic ten, I was puzzled at what the hell patriot meant to the folks at the Hayes School Publishing Co. (See, there's some linguistic content in this.) So I did what ordinary people do when puzzled by words: I looked in the dictionary, specifically the American Heritage Dictionary 4, which told me that a patriot is:

(1) One who loves, supports, and defends one's country.

But then I was puzzled not only about patriot but also about the AHD4's bizarre use of the pronoun one's, which seems to have resulted from someone's rejection of the anaphors his (sexist), his or her (clunky), and their (plural). I'll look at that puzzle first.

It's easy to see how the people at AHD4 ended up with (1), but it won't do. The subject of (1) is an indefinite pronoun one, in alternation with the indefinite pronoun someone, while the possessive in (1) is a generic pronoun one's, in alternation with the generic pronoun your. These two don't fit together. We can see how bad the fit is by trying to slot the alternatives into (1):

(1.1) Someone who loves, supports, and defends one's country.
(1.2) One who loves, supports, and defends your country.
(1.3) Someone who loves, supports, and defends your country.

These are all grammatical, and roughly synonymous with one another and with (1), but they don't mean what the editors of AHD4 were after, which requires that the possessive be anaphoric to the subject: someone who loves etc. their own country. Not (necessarily) mine, not yours, not the reader's, but their own.

The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1993 ed.) gets this just right, opting for the clunky but accurate his or her and even adding a bit of complexity to the support/defend part of the definition:

(2) A person devoted to his or her country; a person (claiming to be) ready to support or defend his or her country's freedom and rights.

But enough of warnings to the AHD staff. Who counts as a patriot? More to the point, who will schoolteachers think counts as a patriot?

Well, on service to and defense of the country, military leaders will score high. So will notable presidents, especially those who were military men themselves or presided in wartime. (Patriotism and war turn out to more closely associated than I would have thought.) And of course there are the Founding Fathers. One person scores in all three areas, and indeed G. Washington -- I cite the names as they appear on the stickers -- is one of the ten Patriots. Of the remaining Founding Fathers, I would have expected Jefferson (who accompanies Washington on Mount Rushmore) to get a sticker, but no; instead, Benjamin Franklin gets the nod. Statesmen and diplomats don't seem to rank high on schoolteachers' patriotism scale; maybe Franklin is the token Patriot from this category, and gets a boost from his Founding Father status. (Paul Revere seems to be insufficiently Great.)

On to other great presidents, especially those with military or wartime connections. The prime candidate after Washington is Abe Lincoln, and then we might as well fill out Mount Rushmore with Teddy Roosevelt. They are indeed sticker Patriots. The two world wars are not yet covered, so we add Woodrow Wilson and F. D. Roosevelt to the set. Six down, four to go. Except for the Jefferson/Franklin thing, it's been pretty straightforward so far.

Any military candidates who weren't elected president? I ran through quite a few American generals -- George Marshall was my first choice -- before stumbling across the one who made the sticker set: D. MacArthur.

Still no African Americans and no women, and only three slots left. If you think of the task as being to name Great Americans rather than Patriots, then one African American clearly stands out: Martin L. King. Bingo.

Choosing a woman wasn't easy. My candidate was Eleanor Roosevelt, but I realized that she'd be too controversial, and anyway her husband was already in the set. My guess was that schoolteachers would go for Julia Ward Howe, as a combination of the artistic and the military (and comfortably back in history). But no. Instead, the sticker choice was a two-for-one, an African American woman: Harriet Tubman. (My son-in-law admitted he'd never heard of her, and I soothed him by confessing that I could hardly name any famous Australians outside of the arts and noting that the outlaw Ned Kelly, one of the few names that came to my mind, would scarcely count as an Australian patriot, no matter how far you expanded the meaning of patriot.) Tubman isn't a bad choice as a Great African American, but she's a bit of a stretch as a Patriot.

Now the really hard part, Patriot #10. This one would never ever have occurred to me if my daughter hadn't explained, in answer to my question about whether #10 was still living, that, strictly speaking, #10 was neither living nor dead. Ok, a fictional Patriot. Or, at least, a fictional Great American. Even then, it's a stretch: Uncle Sam, the (bellicose) embodiment of the nation.

Presumably, schoolchildren are expected to learn the meaning of patriotism -- in particular, American patriotism -- from the lives and deeds of these ten personages. I wonder. What, exactly, has Uncle Sam done?

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at February 13, 2005 01:25 PM