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April 13th, 2005

Whose or of which? / Portia and Julian / underneath vs. under

by Barbara Wallraff

Catherine Welch, of Caribou, Maine, writes: “When I was young, ‘who’ referred only to people—not to companies, animals, countries, etc. Has there been a change in English construction that allows newscasters and newspapers to say things like ‘The government, whose military members are serving in Iraq, is having difficulty providing the same medical care for all,’ instead of “The government, the military members of which are serving …’?”

Dear Catherine: You’re right that “who” is meant to refer to people (with a few exceptions, which I’ll get to shortly). Someone who says “Guess who,” for instance, definitely expects a different response than someone who says “Guess what.” But “whose,” the word in your example sentence, is another story. “Whose” has been referring to inanimate things since the 1300s. Only in recent centuries has there been a trend toward substituting “of which” -- “except,” in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “where the latter would produce an intolerably clumsy form.” I’ll grant you, what’s “intolerably clumsy” to one person may seem fine to someone else. Maybe I should just point out that the stylish and widely admired novelist Ian McEwan wrote the sentence “There were pictures whose context she understood immediately,” and leave it at that.

Oh, but let’s not forget the exceptions: Most reference sources, including The Associated Press Stylebook, are in favor of using “who” for animals with names. For instance, “Barney and Miss Beazley, who live in the White House with President and Mrs. Bush, are Scottish terriers.” “Who” is useful, as well, for personifications of inanimate things: “The Mona Lisa, who recently moved to much grander quarters in the Louvre, has more to smile about than ever before.”

Arianna Treebird, of Elkins, W.Va., writes: “Where do the names Portia and Julian come from?”

Dear Arianna: I wish you had told me why you’re asking. Then I would know how gently to break the news about the name Portia: Apparently it comes from the Latin word for “pig.” If that upsets you, please bear in mind that it didn’t stop Shakespeare from giving the name to one of his most dazzling female characters, in “The Merchant of Venice.”

As for the name Julian, it doesn’t seem to have begun as a word with a meaning. First there was the name Julius -- as in Julius Caesar. This evolved first into Julianus and finally into Julian. For centuries Julian was a unisex name. For instance, Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century English mystic, was a woman. Nowadays she’s often referred to as Juliana, but that’s not what she went by in life.

Paul Bayley, of Pleasant Hill, Calif., writes: “Why is ‘underneath’ ever used? Isn’t it always possible to use ‘under’ instead? It’s funny how the little things in life and language can be so irritating. Or is it just me?”

Dear Paul: Generally speaking, no, it’s not just you. Lots of people have language peeves. But that’s what this is. Saving a syllable here and there doesn’t matter the way saving money or cutting calories does. “Underneath” is a perfectly good word. Sometimes it’s actually better than “under” -- for instance, in “Idiosyncratically, she wore a miniskirt with bluejeans underneath.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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