June 10, 2006

Reversed née

In the New York Times today (6/10/06), Maureen Dowd's op-ed piece "Bloggers Double Down" refers to a political blogger turned novelist by both of her names:

But others... see him [Markos Moulitsas, who runs the political blog Daily Kos] the way Ana Marie Cox, née Wonkette, described him his week in Time.com:...

Whoa!  That "née" is reversed; the person who's blogged under the name Wonkette was born Ana Marie Cox.

Maureen Dowd is not the first to get it backwards for Cox/Wonkette.  Here's the title of a book review by Phil Kloer in the San Diego Union-Tribune of 1/29/06:

"Ana Marie Cox, nee Wonkette, does surprisingly well in her debut novel"

(Here "nee" is one degree less Frenchy than Dowd's "née".)

It's not just Wonkette.  Here's a reversal (also accentless) for Cutler/Washingtonienne, from "The Week in Wonkette" by Ryan Avent on the blog dcist on 1/4/06:

It began in this month's Capitol File, where Jessica Cutler (nee Washingtonienne, and also a published author) seems to direct a column (on sex, natch) at Cox.

It's not just women.  Here are two reversals (accentless, but still feminine in form if understood as French) for John Hinderaker, a lawyer who blogs on Power Line and uses the alias Hindrocket, from "Support The Troops, When Convenient" by "Reverend Mykeru" (Michael Cortese) on the blog mykeru.com on 4/15/05:

Just the other day, a member of the chickenhawk right, John Hinderaker (nee "Hindrocket", AKA "Assrocket") committed one of the most egregious examples of abandoning the troops when they start becoming real people...

and from "Hindrocket's Hackery" by Nico Pitney on the blog Think Progress of 4/14/05:

Over at Powerline, John Hinderaker (nee "Hindrocket") is outraged.

It's fairly easy to see how things got turned around this way.  We start with the adoption of the French feminine singular participle née 'born' to indicate a married woman's maiden name, as in "Hillary Clinton née Rodham"; the OED Online revision of 9/03 has cites from 1758 through 2000, all except one (from 1878) with the accent -- and that one indicates the Frenchness of the word by italicizing it.

Next, it gets extended ("often humorously and for effect", the OED says) to the meaning 'originally called' and is applied to things and places, as in the OED's first cite in this sense, from a 1958 issue of the International Journal of American Linguistics:

On Tagmemes, née gramemes

and, usually without an accent, to men who have adopted pseudonyms or aliases, as in the OED's 1988 cite from the Los Angeles Times:

He once had a coach, the infamous Johnny Blood (nee McNally)

(though the gender-appropriate French is also attested for the latter purpose; the OED has cites from 1937 on).

Then, it gets further extended to the meaning 'formerly called', with no claim that the earlier name was the original one.  Examples that are unambiguously of this sort are not hard to find; they involve a series of renamings, as in this posting by Doug Snow on the blog The Volokh Conspiracy, 4/4/06:

I think it's interesting that my IP address is resolving from the Milwaukee Central Office of AT&T (nee SBC, nee Ameritech, nee Wisconsin Bell).

or in this one by "Ace" on the blog Ace of Spades HQ, 8/17/05, entitled:

"P Diddy, nee Puff Daddy, Changing His Name Again"

This time the man was simplifying his name to Diddy.  But he was ORIGINALLY Sean Combs, and at this point in his life was merely FORMERLY Puff Daddy, soon to also be formerly P Diddy.  (Also note Frenchness conveyed by italics.)

Once we get to things like "nee Puff Daddy", the way is open for the reader to (mis)understand the nee as merely supplying an alternative, not necessarily former, name -- to understand it as a synonym of a.k.a. or AKA (or however you want to spell it), with which it sometimes co-occurs, as in the Mykeru quote above, or in this wonderful quote from "The Hysteries of Tacitus", by "Retardo Montalban" on the blog Sadly, No!, of 5/11/06, which has pretty much everything going on at once (with some invective thrown in for free):

Josh Trevino (nee' Tacitus, a.k.a. The Marble Douchebag), in the conclusion to one of his patented 'I'll Concentrate On The Mote In Your Eye If You'll Please Ignore The Huge Pole Up My Ass' diatribes...

Here we get a version of née used of a man, to introduce a pseudonym, in combination with a.k.a., and with a spelling that marks it as French -- though ineptly, since the accent is associated with the second e rather than the first.

In any case, such examples are not literally of reversed née; instead they illustrate the extension of the word to mean 'also known as', with no specification as to the temporal order in which the names appeared.  I'm not ready to go there yet with Maureen Dowd, but at least I see how she (and the others) got there.  Are they the wave of the future? 

[Update, later the same day: A pile of readers -- Gene Buckley got in first -- rose up to suggest that Dowd's usage, and some (but possibly not all) of the others I cited, could be just a variety of the 'originally named' reading -- but extended from the view of the person referred to to the view of the reading public, or Us, and in this case We are the blogosphere.  Or, in other words, that the meaning is no longer 'originally/first named', but 'originally/first known as'.  We first came across her as Wonkette, then eventually discovered that she was Ana Marie Cox, so FOR US Wonkette came first.  Plausible as another route to the appearance of reversal, and also fairly distant from the original meaning of née.]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at June 10, 2006 01:05 PM