Where Does The Term 'Gubernatorial' Come From? | Connecticut Public Radio
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Where Does The Term 'Gubernatorial' Come From?

Nov 15, 2019
Originally published on November 16, 2019 1:51 am

Gubernatorial wasn't a word I thought much about until I started editing pieces about gubernatorial elections.

In fact, there's a gubernatorial election in Louisiana on Saturday between the only Democratic governor in the deep South and his Republican challenger, a wealthy Trump-backed businessman.

But it didn't take long to realize the word gubernatorial is necessary — a copy editor once told me that despite my best attempt, "race for governor" is not shorter than "gubernatorial" in a headline — and also that it is not a well-liked adjective among radio reporters.

One reporter told me the word gives her the heebie-jeebies. Mallory Noe-Payne, with member station WVTF in Virginia, says she does everything she can to work around gubernatorial, at least in the stories she tells on the radio.

"I say the Democrats control Virginia's governorship. Or, the race for governor in Virginia. Or, so-in-so is running for governor," Noe-Payne explains.

I started to wonder why don't we say governatorial. Why is the adjective just different enough from the noun, governor, and the verb, govern, to set people off?

Lisa McLendon, who teaches at the University of Kansas School of Journalism, says the real question is why don't we say gubernator instead of governor?

"Because, if you go back to where this word came from, in the original Latin, it's from the verb, gubernare and gubernator, one who governs," McLendon says.

Then, "governor, with the 'v,' came into English from French in about the 14th century," she says. "French had taken the Latin and they swapped the 'b' for a 'v.' "

English speakers went back to the "b" about 400 years later, but just for gubernatorial. And, there's the split.

Interestingly, this is mainly a U.S. usage, says McLendon, "Most other varieties of English spoken throughout the world do not use gubernatorial."

McLendon tells me in language, it's sometimes very hard to answer the why questions, but she has a couple of theories about why things turned out this way. Maybe we needed the adjective because we have so many governors in this country. Or, maybe some people some-300 years ago want to show off their Latin and went back to the original "b." We don't know.

One thing McLendon knows, though, is that once a word gets stuck in language, it's harder to get out. "It sticks around," she says.

To all the reporters out there with the heebie-jeebies, it sounds like you're stuck with gubernatorial.

Acacia Squires is NPR's state government editor.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Gubernatorial - it's a word NPR political editors use all the time, as in the final gubernatorial election of 2019 is tomorrow. And we've been wondering, what's with that word? NPR state government editor Acacia Squires explains.

ACACIA SQUIRES, BYLINE: Gubernatorial, guber (ph), gub (ph).

MALLORY NOE-PAYNE, BYLINE: Do you ever call anybody a gub?

SQUIRES: This is one of the reporters I work with. She reports on, yes, gubernatorial affairs, among other things, at member station WVTF.

NOE-PAYNE: I'm Mallory Noe-Payne. I cover Virginia politics and policy. I'm in Richmond.

SQUIRES: I called her up this week because she feels a particular way about the word gubernatorial.

NOE-PAYNE: It gives me the heebie-jeebies.

SQUIRES: She tells me she avoids the term if at all possible.

So what do you do instead?

NOE-PAYNE: I work around it. I say Democrats control Virginia's governorship or the race for governor in Virginia or so-and-so is running for governor.

SQUIRES: Right - governor, govern, government. So why don't we say governatorial (ph)?

LISA MCLENDON: The question isn't why do we say gubernatorial instead of governatorial.

SQUIRES: Lisa McLendon teaches grammar and news writing at the University of Kansas. She's an expert in linguistics, and she tells me I should be asking...

MCLENDON: But why don't we say gubernator instead of governor?

SQUIRES: Huh?

MCLENDON: Because if you go back to where this word came from in the original Latin, it's from the verb gubernare, to govern, or gubernator, one who governs.

SQUIRES: So the B in gubernatorial comes from Latin.

MCLENDON: Governor, with the V, came into English from French in about the 14th century. And the French had taken the Latin, and they swapped the B for a V.

SQUIRES: Then 400 years later, English speakers dug back into the original Latin for the adjective; gubernatorial.

MCLENDON: And interestingly enough, this is chiefly a U.S. usage.

SQUIRES: McLendon tells me in language, it's sometimes very hard to answer the why questions, but she has a few theories on this. Maybe we needed the adjective because we have so many governors in this country, or maybe we just wanted to sound smart.

OK, one last question. Is Mallory Noe-Payne, the reporter in Richmond, stuck with the word gubernatorial?

MCLENDON: It's one of those things that once it gets into language, it's harder to get it out. It sticks around because there are people then who use it.

SQUIRES: People like us - Acacia Squires, NPR News.

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