nuclear option

In U. S. politics in recent years, the term nuclear option has been employed to refer to the elimination of the filibuster rule in the Senate. The Senate requires a supermajority, currently three-fifths or sixty votes, to invoke cloture and end debate on a subject and proceed to a vote. This rule gives the minority power considerable power to block presidential appointments and legislation. But where does nuclear option come from and why nuclear?

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Cloture is the act of ending debate on a subject in a legislative assembly, and most often today it’s used in reference to the United States Senate. The word is a modern borrowing from the French clôture, which was used by the French Assembly in the nineteenth century.

Its use in English dates to at least 1845, when it appears in Luther Stearns Cushing’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice, which refers to cloture votes taken in the British House of Commons.

Given that our current use of cloture is so closely associated with the US Senate, it’s somewhat surprising to learn that body’s adoption of the term is a twentieth century innovation. It wasn’t until 1917 that the Senate adopted a cloture rule requiring a two-thirds majority (65 votes, later 67) approval for ending debate. Prior to that, ending debate on a matter required unanimous approval and a single senator could filibuster a bill so long as his vocal cords held out. In 1975 the number of votes required for cloture was reduced to a three-fifths majority (60 votes). In 2013 the Senate reduced the number to a simple majority (51 votes) for approval of executive and judicial nominations, other than US Supreme Court nominees. In 2017 the Senate applied the simple majority rule to Supreme Court nominees as well.


Corpus of Historical American English, Brigham Young University, May 2016.

Filibuster and Cloture,” United States Senate, accessed 8 April 2017.

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. cloture, n.

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CMOS and the Singular They

The Chicago Manual of Style, one of the major academic style guides in the US, is inching their way toward acceptance of the singular they, that is the use of they to refer to a singular antecedent when the gender of the antecedent is unknown, generic, or non-binary. The University of Chicago Press is publishing the seventeenth edition of their widely used manual in September, and they’ve begun announcing what some of the changes will be, among them a shift toward using they for singular antecedents, but it is less han a full-throated acceptance.

CMOS 17 lays out two uses of the singular they. The first is using they to replace the generic he, that is the use of the masculine pronouns when the gender is unknown or generic. Use of he in this context is considered sexist by many and has fallen out of favor by most publishers and style guides, but agreement on what to replace it with has not been achieved until quite recently, when they started to gain rapid acceptance. CMOS 17 “accepts” the singular they in informal writing and “does not prohibit” its use in formal writing, although it recommends other strategies to avoid using it if possible.

This is a change from CMOS 16 (2010), which reads in section 5.222:

On the one hand, it is unacceptable to a great many reasonable readers to use the generic masculine pronoun (he in reference to no one in particular). On the other hand, it is unacceptable to a great many readers (often different readers) either to resort to nontraditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using he/she or s/he, for example) or to use they as a kind of singular pronoun. Either way, credibility is lost with some readers.

CMOS 17 also advises editors to be flexible and take the book’s or article’s context into account when deciding what pronoun to use. It also says that the author’s wishes should be “always receive consideration.” In other words, unless there is a very good reason not to use it, editors using CMOS 17 shouldn’t dictate to their authors on whether or not to use the singular they in generic contexts.

The second use is a topic that went unaddressed in earlier editions of the manual, the use of they to refer to a specific person who does not identify as either male or female, someone who does not conform to the the traditional gender binary. For all contexts, formal and informal, CMOS 17 says that “a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected.”

CMOS 17 says the singular they should take a plural verb, much like you does. (You was also originally a plural form, which took over from the singular thou.)

While its wording may not indicate it, this move toward accepting the singular they is a big shift. In practice, it means that most publishers who use CMOS will accept the singular they. By the time CMOS 18 hits the streets in another seven or so years, I predict that it will be a non-issue.

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Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles Online

The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, or DCHP-2, is an extremely valuable resource for studying any “word, expression, or meaning which is native to Canada or which is distinctively characteristic of Canadian usage though not necessarily exclusive to Canada.” And it’s available online for free.

The second edition went live in March 2017 and is an update of the first, 1967 edition. The new edition not only includes words that have appeared since 1967, the editors have also cleaned up questionable entries for older words—for example, the DCHP-1 had separate entries for toque and tuque, which are now combined into one. As well, many entries have full color, photo illustrations and charts showing the term’s use across the provinces or through time.

So now you can look up poutine (1956), toonie (1993) and garburator (1948), and Kraft dinner (1937).

Users of the DCHP must be aware, however, that the dictionary only includes citations from Canadian sources. So when a term is older in other dialects, the older citations will not appear. This editorial choice, while a valid and justifiable one, means that users cannot rely on the DCHP alone, but must use it conjunction with more comprehensive sources like the OED. Still, this isn’t going to be a serious limitation to most users. And the DCHP-2, unfortunately, continues a poor web-design choice from the first online edition, where users must click on each citation to see the bibliographic data, which is annoying and time consuming. One cannot take in the provenance of all the citations at a glance, as one can with the OED.

Still, even with these limitations, it’s a valuable addition to the lexicographic resources available on the web.

The first edition remains available online for those that want to compare how entries have changed.

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The Oxford Comma and the Law

The Oxford comma was in the news recently when a federal court interpreted a Maine statute regarding overtime pay for dairy truck drivers. In the case of O’Connor, et al. v. Oakhurst Dairy, the lack of a comma, or so the news stories would have it, resulted in a victory for workers’ rights. The Oxford comma (serial comma) is the comma after the penultimate item in a list, as in me, myself, and I; the Oxford comma is the one after myself.

The problem with the news reporting on this case is that the ambiguity does not rest solely with the lack of a comma. And, more importantly, the decision of the circuit court did not rest on the punctuation but rather relied on other methods to interpret the statute in question.

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Loo, the British word for a lavatory or toilet is one of those words that has generated endless speculation and myth about its origin. While we don’t know for sure where the word comes from, we do have a pretty good guess. It’s most likely from the French lieu, meaning place. The English loo doesn’t make an unambiguous appearance until 1940, but there is good evidence the term was in use since at least the late nineteenth century, and the use of the euphemism in French is much older.

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Old English Dictionaries

Peter Buchanan, who teaches at New Mexico Highlands University, has assembled an excellent introduction to the three major Old English dictionaries: John Clark Hall’s Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (a.k.a., Clark Hall), Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (Bosworth Toller), and Toronto’s Dictionary of Old English (DOE). Buchanan’s discussion can be found on his blog, Phenomenal Anglo-Saxons. Buchanan’s description is framed as a reference for students at NMHU, but it’s useful for anyone who wants an introduction to the dictionaries.

Clark Hall contains brief entries and is chiefly useful as a quick reference for translators or readers. There is a version available online for free, although it’s an image scan and unwieldy to use. Bosworth Toller is comprehensive, but it’s nineteenth-century scholarship. It’s also available online for free with a good, searchable user interface. The DOE is the gold standard, but it’s a work in progress: only A–H has been published, and it’s a subscription service, although limited access is available on a trial basis. Buchanan’s page details how to get temporary access.

(Disclosure: Peter is a friend from my time at Toronto. Despite that dubious association, he’s an excellent scholar and all-around good egg.)

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When examining the origins of a word one must be careful to distinguish between the word and the thing itself. The origin of the word is often quite different from the origin of the thing that it represents. Such is the case with baseball. In this case the word is much older than the game we today know by that name.

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Extreme vetting, or the detailed investigation into a person’s background, has been in the news of late as the term of art used by Donald Trump to describe what needs to happen to refugees seeking to enter the United States. Putting aside the fact that existing investigatory measures are already quite thorough and that Trump does not provide details on how he will change the process to make it extreme—this is a language blog, not an immigration one—the question arises where does the verb to vet come from?

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The other day I was wondering about the word surname. What is the sur-? prefix. The etymology, while perhaps not immediately obvious, is quite straightforward; the sur- is a French variation on the Latin super, meaning above or beyond. It comes to us, like many French roots, from the Normans. So a surname is one’s second or higher name, and the word dates to the fourteenth century.

But there are other sur- words, some like surname, borrowed whole from French (Anglo-Norman surnum, early fourteenth century), while others have been formed in English:

surcharge, an additional charge, originally a verb (1429) borrowed from the Old French surcharger and turned into a noun by 1601

survive, to live beyond or after (1473), from the Anglo-Norman survivre, which was formed from the Latin vivere, to live

surpass, to go over or beyond (1588), from the French surpasser.

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. sur-, prefix

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