November 01, 2005

A perilous portmanteau?

It remains to be seen if the new Supreme Court nominee, Judge Samuel Alito, will earn an eponymous verb like Bork, Souter, and Miers. But he's already responsible for a somewhat dubious contribution to the lexicon. In the coverage of Alito's nomination, journalists and pundits repeatedly mention that he has earned the nickname Scalito out of perceived similarities to Justice Antonin Scalia. As a CBS report explains, Scalito is "a nickname of dual purpose: it meshes his name with that of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia and is also a translation of 'little Scalia.'" It's been a good couple of weeks for neologistic blending: first Fitzmas, now Scalito.

The creation of a lexical blend (or portmanteau, as Lewis Carroll famously labeled such coinages as slithy from lithe and slimy) typically combines semantic elements to mimic the phonological fusion. When people's names are blended, it often indicates the inseparability of the two blendees. Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee famously bellowed "Woodstein!" when he had difficulty distinguishing the young reporting team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The ascension of Bill and Hillary Clinton to the White House saw the popularization of Billary — once used endearingly (as in the 1992 campaign when Hillary was using the line, "Buy one, get one free"), but later made pejorative by opponents who ridiculed the idea of a "co-presidency." More recently, we've had a rash of blends identifying celebrity couples: Bennifer, Brangelina, TomKat. (A documentary accompanying a new Greta Garbo DVD collection reveals a predecessor from the silent movie era: Garbo and John Gilbert, her partner in romance on and off the screen, were blended into Gilbo Garbage.)

But Scalito is a different kind of onomastic blend: an epithet combining elements of two names to suggest a resemblance of one named person to the other. In recent American political history, such blends have been almost uniformly derogatory. Some examples:

  • Kerredy (used by the right to compare John Kerry to Ted Kennedy)
  • McStarrthy (used by the left to compare Kenneth Starr to Joseph McCarthy)
  • Hitlery/Hitlary (used by the right to compare Hillary Clinton to Hitler)
  • Bushitler (used by the left to compare George W. Bush to Hitler &mdash a possible play on bullshitter?)

Even when political figures are blended with the names of fictional characters, the connotation is typically negative: Clarence Thomas was called Tom Ass Clarence by Amiri Baraka as an allusion to Uncle Tom; Ronald Reagan was called Ronbo or Ronzo to evoke unfavorable comparisons with Rambo or his onetime costar Bonzo the chimp. (Thanks to contributors of the alt.usage.english newsgroup for suggesting many of these.)

Given the pejorative nature of such blends, it's not surprising that there has already been a Scalito backlash among Alito's supporters. Time reports that "clerks and associates say the comparison [of Alito to Scalia], often made with the derisive nickname of 'Scalito,' does a disservice to the man." On the blog Blue Mass. Group, David Kravitz offers "One liberal's positive view of Alito," in which he interviews Kate Pringle, a former clerk of Alito who happens to be a progressive Democrat:

If you've heard any news stories about Judge Alito, you've heard that his supposed "nickname" (it remains unclear by whom it was bestowed) is "Scalito," the idea being that he's a "little Scalia."  I asked Pringle if she thought this was fair to Alito.  "No," she said, "I never have."  Pringle noted that Scalia and Alito are of course both of Italian ancestry, are both Catholic, and are both conservative, but she thinks there are more important differences between them including temperament, personal style, and the desire (or lack thereof) to find consensus. (My own view, FWIW, is that this "Scalito" business is simply due to two conservative judges having Italian surnames that happen to sound similar.  It is therefore insulting and juvenile and should be dropped immediately - if two Jewish judges' names were subjected to similar wordplay, the "joke" would be widely condemned as anti-semitic.)

Kravitz and Pringle focus not just on the blending of the two judges' names, but also on how Scalito works as a diminutive form of Scalia with the suffix -ito. The -ito reading certainly seems to add an extra note of condescension, and it recalls the work of linguistic anthropologist Jane Hill on the use of "mock Spanish" as a means of derogation. Stay tuned to see if a consensus emerges among our political tastemakers, either embracing Scalito or dismissing it as "insulting and juvenile."

[Update #1, 11/1/05: From the conservative side of the spectrum, more complaints about Scalito (courtesy The Drudge Report) — "One outraged Republican strategist claimed, 'If Alito were a liberal there would be no way Democrats and Washington's media elite would use such a ethnically insensitive nickname. Italian-Americans should not have to face these types of derogatory racial slurs in 21st century America.'"]

[Update #2: More from Drudge — "National Italian American Foundation Demands 'Scalito' Apology." Press release from NIAF chairman A. Kenneth Ciongoli here. And from the left, a rebuttal on Daily Kos: "Kenneth Ciongoli: Republican Donor Spreads Lying Smear Against Dems."]

[Update #3: Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard also takes offense at Scalito: "The nickname is misleading. The two men may share a vowel at the end of their last name. But, needless to say, they're different people." Link via Nick at the musement park blog, who spoofs a recent statement by Tom DeLay to complain that "we are witnessing the criminalization of wordplay."]

[Update #4: The Scalito nickname dates back to a Dec. 7, 1992 article in the National Law Journal, according to the blog The Buck Stops Here. In the comments section of the blog, Shannon P. Duffy (then a reporter for the Legal Intelligencer), takes credit for coining Scalito. (Link via Wikipedia.)]

[Update #5: A question... does Italian borrow the Spanish diminutive suffix -ito? I'm only familiar with the Italian diminutives -ino, -etto, -ello, and -iano. But I suppose there is graffito, diminutivized from graffio (though it's unclear if this is related to graffiato, past participle of graffiare). Perhaps -ito is an older Italian suffix cognate with the Spanish, with -etto as the Modern Italian equivalent?]

[Final update, 11/2/05: see this post for a roundup of the latest developments.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 1, 2005 01:20 AM