November 02, 2005

Squabbles over "Scalito"

The original round of reporting on Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court introduced us to the nickname Scalito, interpreted as either a blend of Scalia and Alito or a diminutivization of Scalia (or both). Since my first post on the subject, debates have raged over the nickname, with the expected polarization along political battle-lines.

The Drudge Report was first out of the gate in equating the Scalito nickname with supposed Italian-American-bashing by Alito's Democratic opponents. Drudge quoted an "outraged Republican strategist" as saying:

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.

Later, Drudge provided a named source for the outrage, under the headline, "National Italian American Foundation Demands 'Scalito' Apology." NIAF chairman A. Kenneth Ciongoli issued a press release condemning the use of the nickname by "some senators and the media." Predictably, this charge of a smear was itself called a smear on the left-leaning Daily Kos, with one commenter reporting that Ciongoli's son once clerked for Alito. And so the recriminations continue.

Some conservatives, while not explicitly labeling Scalito a "racial slur," have been quick to challenge its use based on perceived ethnic discrimination. Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard writes:

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.

As Eric Bakovic notes over at phonoloblog, the business about Alito and Scalia "sharing a vowel at the end of their last name" sounds a bit odd unless you read further, where Continetti identifies himself as a fellow Italian-American possessor of a vowel-final surname:

I, too, in case you haven't noticed, have a vowel at the end of my name, and so I find myself obliged, as a strange point of ethnic pride, to point out Scalia and Alito's differences.

Continetti's remarks inspired "Nick" at the musement park blog to reply:

I mean, is the whole world going crazy?? Two ultra-conservative, dissent-penning, Italians on the same Supreme Court (potentially), one clerked for the other, both have 3-syllable, rhthmically identical names that include the letters A-L-I, and everyone is just supposed to ignore the name thing?

In another blog entry Nick bemoans that "we are witnessing the criminalization of wordplay" (spoofing a recent statement by Tom DeLay about "the criminalization of conservative politics").

Those objecting to Scalito don't have much to say about reading it as a blend of the two names, fused at the -ali- overlap (beyond a general complaint that it somehow disparages Italian names). But the second interpretation, that Scalito is a diminutive form of Scalia, has become a point of contention, since some Alito supporters find it belittling.

Press accounts have called Scalito "a translation of 'little Scalia'" — but a translation from what? It doesn't work in standard Italian, where diminutivizing suffixes include -ino, -etto, and -ello, but not -ito. (Thanks to Donna Jo Napoli for verifying this; I had thought -ito might have been an old Italian suffix based on seeing etymologies for graffito that suggest it was diminutivized from graffio. In fact graffito owes its form to graffiato, the past participle of graffiare 'to scratch, scribble,' not to an -ito suffix.) [Update: Geoffrey Nunberg further clarifies that graffito is the past participle of graffire, which the Dizionario della Lingua Italiana defines as "incidere leggermente, tracciare incidendo" ("incise/etch lightly, draw while incising"). There are also the variants sgraffire/sgraffito, now largely obsolete.]

Rather than Italian, the source for the -ito diminutivization is clearly Spanish. This is not to say that the "little Scalia" reading is necessarily a "translation" from Spanish either. (Eric Bakovic points out via email that in his native variety of Spanish, Scalia would actually be diminutivized as Scaliecito [skaljesito] — or if we simplify the initial consonant cluster, Escaliecito!) But in American "mock Spanish," as Jane Hill calls it, the -ito suffix is applied indiscriminately. So the blending of Scalia and Alito into Scalito allows for a secondary reading as a "foreign-sounding" diminutive of Scalia, regardless of actual rules of morphology in either Italian or Spanish.

We might need to go back to the original source to find out if the "little Scalia" reading was at play in the creation of Scalito or if it was simply a later interpretation. The first print appearance of the nickname is in a Dec. 7, 1992 article in the National Law Journal by Joseph Slobodzian. Commenting on Stuart Buck's blog The Buck Stops Here, Shannon P. Duffy of the Legal Intelligencer takes credit for coining Scalito and feeding it to Slobodzian.

So the nickname was evidently a journalistic invention to begin with. (Even now, according to the Washington Post, Alito's colleagues "don't know anyone who isn't a journalist who actually calls him 'Scalito.'") It has become a useful weapon, however, for those on the left wanting to tar Alito with the same brush as Scalia, and for those on the right wanting to paint criticism of Alito as discriminatory against Italian Americans.

[Update, 11/3/05: Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, has been tracking the media's use of Scalito on his blog, Political Arithmetik. He found a big dropoff in usage between 10/31 and 11/2. It's very possible that, as in the case of the word refugee during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, journalists are backing off from a word that is potentially controversial. Or, perhaps, the novelty of the term is simply wearing off.]

[Update, 11/7/05: More from Franklin here.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 2, 2005 04:20 PM