August 07, 2006

Boston's irreconcilable council(l)ors

Boston's City Council is hopelessly deadlocked over a grave matter: Should council(l)or be spelled with one L or two? According to today's Boston Globe, the council is about evenly split between one-L-ers and two-L-ers. The two-L-ers say tradition is on their side, as that's how city documents have long spelled the word. But the one-L spelling is preferred by "newer, younger councilors" (the Globe goes with one L, obviously) who see it "as a symbol of breaking from an old, hide-bound kind of politics." It's a delicious example of how orthography can be invested with weighty sociopolitical significance, even to the point of fetishization.

Here are a few quotes from the brash young one-L-ers:

"It just exemplifies that we are on the vanguard of change," said Jack Kowalski, spokesman for Sam Yoon, the council's first Asian-American.

"Why use two Ls when you can use only one?" said Councilor Michael P. Ross. "I believe in conservation — and brevity."

Salvatore LaMattina, the newest council member, said his staff had a discussion over the issue when he first took office in June.
"I just liked the one L," he said. "It's easier, and I wanted to be a little different for my district than the previous councilor." Paul J. Scapicchio, the previous councilor from District 1, used two Ls.

And on the other side are the two-L-ers, saving orthographic tradition from the impertinent whippersnappers:

"Those new young guys, they've just got no respect," said [Councilor John] Tobin, whose staff for several years mocked him by giving him the nickname "Double L."
"I will not be part of the dumbing down of the English language," he said.

"That's the proper way," said Councilor Charles C. Yancey, who spells it with two Ls. "I am aware that some of my colleagues are spelling it a different way. I should accept personal responsibility for not properly educating them. Either that or they've refused to listen."

The mayor, Thomas M. Menino, doesn't seem to favor one L or two, instead seeing the debate as symbolic of the council's inability to compromise. "If they can't agree on the spelling of councilor, how are they going to agree on anything else?" Menino told the Globe.

The Globe article identifies councillor as a British spelling and notes that the Oxford English Dictionary has it that way, while other dictionaries including Webster's New World prefer the one-L version. The current OED entry for councillor doesn't even mention the one-L variant, though the entry doesn't appear to have been revised at all over the past century (true for many of the OED entries near the beginning of the alphabet). Most contemporary American dictionaries list councilor and councillor as acceptable alternates, though councillor is sometimes marked as British.

The one-L spelling of councilor was apparently one of Noah Webster's many attempts at distinguishing American orthography from the British model. Webster's pioneering dictionary of 1828 only lists councilor without deigning to mention the traditional British spelling. But after Webster's death, successor dictionaries were not as adamant in imposing the one-L spelling. The revised unabridged dictionary of 1913 notes parenthetically that councilor is "written also as councillor." Webster's Third New International of 1961, which traditionalists derided as being overly permissive, actually lists councillor first, though both spellings are deemed equally acceptable.

Despite the lingering confusion over council(l)or, changing two Ls to one (particularly in inflected and derived forms of L-final root words ending in unstressed syllables) was actually one of Noah Webster's more successful areas of reform. Would the Boston council members who think that the one-L spelling of councilor represents "the dumbing down of the English language" feel the same of jeweler, panelist, or even councilor's soundalike, counselor? As a patriotic one-L-er might point out, our forefathers quarrel(l)ed with having our orthography model(l)ed after the British. Long live America's marvel(l)ous and unrival(l)ed spelling reforms!

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at August 7, 2006 12:45 PM