July 28th, 2004
Mechutonim vs. consuegros / Burns' or Burns's?
by Barbara Wallraff
Recently a reader asked whether English has a word for “the family relationship of my daughter’s mother-in-law to me.” I replied that in Yiddish his daughter’s mother-in-law would be his wife’s “mechutonesteh.” But since that word is so specific, I suggested we borrow the Yiddish word “mechutonim,” a plural for all members of a son- or daughter-in-law’s immediate family. Well! Yiddish, it seems, isn’t the only resource our diverse and sometimes playful culture might draw upon. Here are other possibilities, each of them sent by a Michigander -- or would that be a Michiganian, or a Michiganite? (Dictionaries give all three terms.)
Tom Capiris, of Plymouth, Mich., wrote: “The Greeks have a far, far better word for the relationship between the two mothers of a married couple -- namely ‘sym-beh-THERA.’ The fathers of the couple refer to each other as ‘sym-BEH-theros.’ Far more euphonious, don’t you agree?”
So there you have it. Take your pick.
Mary Nolan, of Voorheesville, N.Y., writes: “I recently sent a letter to the editor of a small local paper. The editor printed my letter after she ‘corrected’ a possessive: I had written ‘Burns’ unit,’ and the editor changed it to ‘Burns’s unit.’ When I asked why this was done, the editor said it was her paper’s policy to always add ‘’s’ to show possession even if a word ends with ‘s.’ I think that policy is wrong. What do you think?”
Dear Mary: The Associated Press Stylebook sides with you -- though not simply because “Burns” ends in “s.” The stylebook says that “singular proper names ending in ‘s’” should be made possessive by adding only an apostrophe. And of course “Burns” is a proper name. (At least I hope it is. If you’re talking about a hospital’s “burns unit,” that’s a whole other story: no capital “B,” no apostrophe and no extra “s,” please.)
© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.