March 29, 2007

Mea culpa

People have trouble accommodating the Latin expression mea culpa 'my fault' into English.  If you're aware of its use in the prayer the Confiteor ('I confess') in the Latin Mass, then you'll probably treat it simply as a quotation.  But as the expression comes to be seen as just a fancy way of saying "my bad", it's open to reanalysis, nativization, and semantic extension.  Breaking news on the reanalysis-cum-nativization front: Hilary Price's Rhymes With Orange cartoon from 27 March:

I'll get back to his/her aculpa in a moment.  But first, an extension in a different direction.  This was first reported to me last month by Dave Borowitz (in my Innovations seminar), as a possible example of a pleonasm.  Borowitz sent me a link to a blog by Al Neuharth, the founder of USA TODAY, in which my mea culpa appears.  In context:
A year ago I criticized Hillary Clinton for saying "this (Bush) administration will go down in history as one of the worst."

"She's wrong," I wrote. Then I rated these five presidents, in this order, as the worst: Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan, Ulysses Grant, Hoover and Richard Nixon. "It's very unlikely Bush can crack that list," I added.

I was wrong. This is my mea culpa. Not only has Bush cracked that list, but he is planted firmly at the top.

Some quick googling on the web pulls up more hits for possessive pronouns + mea culpa: his 23,200; my 17,800; your  394; their 293; her 255; our 228.  They're definitely out there, and some from respectable sources.

On to the dictionaries.  AHD4 and NOAD2 list mea culpa as a noun, and begin their definitions with "an acknowledgement", which turns out to be ambiguous: does the expression serve to acknowledge guilt, or does it denote an act of acknowledging guilt?  These are separated in the OED, which has two senses:

A int. Used as an exclamation or statement acknowledging one's guilt or responsibility for an error

B n. An utterance of 'mea culpa' as an acknowledgement of one's guilt or responsibility for an error

The OED's B examples mostly have mea culpa in italics: "a public mea culpa", "Auden's mea culpa".  But the italicization has largely disappeared in the recent web examples; the expression has developed a use as an ordinary English noun referring to an act of admitting fault (often, now, rather minor faults -- we're far from the Confiteor), with the syntax of any such English noun (including a plural, mea culpas).  Neuharth's "my mea culpa" is just an instance of this extended usage.  (The OED's first examples, from 1818 and 1948, are more literal, referring to the act of uttering "mea culpa", but from 1958 on there are cites with the extended meaning 'admission of fault'.)

Now to more exciting stuff.  At some point, people began to nativize mea culpa in a different direction, with the Latin possessive replaced by an English one, and culpa treated as an English noun.  (The OED has an entry for culpa, but only in legal contexts.)  There are small Google web numbers for possessive pronoun + culpa: his 100; my 52; their 38; her 27; our 13; your 7.  Some of these are in religious or legal contexts, but then there are things like the following, about Michael Richards:

If he was filled with such huge remorse, he should've offered his culpa Saturday night at the club or on any of the local TV stations. ...

[Addendum: Another possibility is to reanalyze the me part of mea as the English pronoun me, in which case things like you-a culpa, youa culpa, and even your-a culpa or youra culpa become possible.  As Ben Zimmer has pointed out to me, these are attested; they were discussed back in 2005 on the ADS-L list.]

Still another possibility is to re-cut mea culpa as me aculpa, and there are modest numbers of hits for this one, for example:

P.S. aculpa: my cyber-pollution record is now 731!

The next step would be to finish nativizing me aculpa as my aculpa.  I don't get any hits for this one, or for your, our, their, or her, and only one hit for his aculpa, in a poem by Sheila Dalton where it's pretty clearly a deliberate play on mea culpa in a religious context:

... God is wearing sunglasses
and tanning Himself on a beach in Hawaii
While I wear nails in my hands
and dodge crosses.

... I have forgotten Him
Mea culpa, mea culpa
But His aculpa, too
for preferring autographs
to virgins
and passing his days on Waikiki beach ...

Hilary Price's couples counselor, on the other hand, with his his aculpa and her aculpa, is on the path to my aculpa.  Look for it.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 29, 2007 01:52 PM