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No violets shrinking among attorneys general

The appointment of a former chief law officer to a new post in Washington provides a reminder of the enduring influence French has on English.

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A former attorney general made news the other day, just as I received a letter from someone who seems to be on a one-man campaign to have "attorney generals" accepted as the plural for the official's former job title. The letter surfaced from my in-box just as President Obama named Richard Cordray, former attorney general of Ohio, to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The political story here is that Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard law professor who first proposed the bureau, has riled the mandarins of the financial industry to the point where her nomination to the post would have been as combustible as those exploding toasters she talks about. The cynic, or maybe the idealist, might think that ability to rile the mandarins was just what was needed. I'll leave that to the editorial page.

For a words nerd, though, the story was an opportunity to collect some real-time data: Is usage changing? Is "attorneys general" just copy editor fussiness?

I soon got a quick confirmation that it was not. Carter Dougherty, a reporter at Bloomberg News, commented in an interview on WBUR's "Here and Now" program that Mr. Cordray has been a forceful consumer advocate, and that comes with the job: "Generally speaking, state attorneys general are no shrinking violets."

There it was: a sound bite from a source in a live interview, albeit one with another journalist. One data point does not, of course, make a trend. But a quick Google check shows 6.9 million hits for "attorneys general" versus 2.6 million for "attorney generals."


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