Sun, Jul 20, 2003 - Page 9 News List

What honorific is appropriate for John Ashcroft and colleagues?

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

After being introduced by Attorney General John Ashcroft, President Bush responded, "Thank you, General." He then said to the audience of US attorneys, "That means you are all in the Army."

The president was displaying his instinct for the jocular but inadvertently touched on a controversy in protocol: How do you address an attorney general? Or a solicitor general, inspector general or postmaster general? Is the officeholder properly called "General"?

Most of us in the language dodge take savage delight in correcting anyone who makes the plural "attorney generals," which is as egregious a gaffe as "court-martials" or "cherry jubilees." In those cases, the nouns (attorney, court, cherry) are followed by their modifiers, the adjectives (general, martial and the attributive noun acting as an adjective, jubilee). To make such a compound title plural, you add an s to the noun -- the thing itself -- not to its modifier.

That's the rule; salute and do it. But not so easy is the oral salutation. While it seems natural to call an inspector general "Inspector" or a postmaster general "Postmaster," it sounds funny to call an attorney general "Attorney," and to call a solicitor general "Solicitor" begs the question.

How did rule-abiding citizens, dutifully using the plural "attorneys general," get into this bind? What turned these civilian appellations into martial arts? Is it right and proper to call an attorney general "General"?

The answer is no. Any attorney general, national or state, who demands to be called "General" is guilty of nominally impersonating an officer, an offense almost as horrendous as aggravated mopery.

As the French linguists say, how can I be Saussure? Thanks to Judge Charles R. Breyer of the US District Court of the Northern District of California, I have before me a shortened version of an article by Michael Herz, professor of law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, in the quarterly Constitutional Commentary.

"Notwithstanding the popularity of `Come here, gorgeous,'" Herz writes, "it is grammatically incorrect to call someone by an adjective. ... History confirms what grammar suggests. Historically, general refers not to rank or command but to the breadth of attorneyship."

Herz tracks the earliest use in English to a 1398 certificate from the Duke of Norfolk's four attorneys general. "The general indicated that these agents could act for their principal on any matter."

According to the OED, such a wide-ranging counsel in the reign of Edward IV in the 15th century -- who was not assigned to a particular court -- was called "the king's general attorney." A century later, Shakespeare had his Duke of York warn Richard II that if the king were to "call in the letters patent that he hath/By his attorneys-general to sue/His livery .../You pluck a thousand dangers on your head."

By 1717, Thomas Blount's Law Dictionary made clear the difference between an attorney general, "appointed to manage all our affairs or Suits," and "Attorney Special or Particular ... imployed in one or more Causes particularly specified."

That's the way it is in America today. In the Department of Justice, criminal attorneys and civil attorneys work under a general attorney breezily called "the A.G." He's an attorney, not a general. You can call the Army's judge advocate general "General," because that's his or her rank. But don't call the Navy's judge advocate general that, because he or she is by statute a rear admiral and gets called "Admiral." Call the surgeon general "Doctor." Call the solicitor general "Solicitor General," or if that's too big a mouthful, in the present case a simple "Mr." or "Ted" will do.

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