There is a great new word that promises to get us out of a not so great metaphor. I’m going to plead its case and hope against hope that the word might get some traction. (As a scholar, I know how hard it is enact conscious language change, but that doesn’t always stop the idealist in me from trying! And yes, I am aware that it is a super prescriptive move on my part to advocate a change in usage like this.)
The not so great metaphor is grammar nazi (or grammar Nazi or Grammar Nazi, depending on how you feel about capitalization). It’s not entirely clear when the word Nazi, which started as an abbreviation for National Socialists (or Nationalsozialist) in the 1930s, started to be used metaphorically to refer to someone who is authoritarian or overzealous about an object or idea. And usually that object or idea appears as a noun modifier right before the metaphorical nazi: fashion nazi, etiquette nazi, fitness nazi, spelling nazi, grammar nazi.
The Oxford English Dictionary cites as its earliest example P.J. O’Rourke, writing in Inquiry in 1982: “The Safety Nazis advocate gun control, vigorous exercise, and health foods.” But Mark Liberman, on Language Log, points out that the term surf nazi (for fanatics of the sport) goes back to the mid-1960s.
Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi” debuted on the television sitcom in 1995.
As a result of all this metaphorical extension, we are in a situation where, as the Belfast Telegraph reporter Ellen E. Jones notes, Nazi can refer to “a person with extreme racist or authoritarian views” and “the flight attendant who charges you for excess baggage.”
Or the person who cares a whole lot about usage rules and likes to correct other people’s “grammar,” be that pronunciation, word choice, apostrophe use, syntax, etc. The often self-proclaimed “grammar nazi” (who might not like that I have put two sentence fragments in a row here and called it a paragraph).
I’m not a big fan of talking about anyone as a Nazi who is not actually a Nazi in the original sense of the term, even though I understand that words can and do — all the time — extend their meanings through metaphor. Before 2012, I knew of two alternatives in circulation: grammar police, which retains some of the “stridentness” (sorry to any peevers, I just needed to create that noun right there) of grammar nazi, and the less-serious feeling peevers, the term that the bloggers on Language Log often use.
Then I came across what seemed like an even better alternative: A grammando.
The word was introduced in March 2012 in Lizzie Skurnick’s feature “That Should Be A Word” in The New York Times Magazine. Here’s her definition:
Grammando: (Gruh-MAN-doh), n., adj. 1. One who constantly corrects others’ linguistic mistakes. “Cowed by his grammando wife, Arthur finally ceased saying ‘irregardless.’”
Skurnick explains on her website that she created the word “because I have always HATED the term “Grammar Nazi,” as it makes NO SENSE, unless Jew-killing means an adherence to precision.” It has gotten scattered support on a few blogs, but I have yet to see the term hit mainstream usage.
A clever blend of grammar and commando, grammando strikes me as an excellent alternative to grammar nazi, even though it is not yet accepted by the spell checker that is checking my spelling as I write this. The barely masked presence of commando creates connotations of forcefulness and enforcement, like grammar police; the inherent playfulness of the blend undermines the seriousness of the endeavor, much like peever.
And while one can police someone else’s grammar or act the peever, neither phrase is nearly as evocative as going grammando.* Not that I’m endorsing going grammando on other people’s usage, but I am endorsing this way of talking about it.
*If that phrasing doesn’t make you giggle, then you might want to look up the slang expression go commando.