Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Referendums and the English Gerundive

Those who are obsessed with current affairs may have noticed that we had a referendum in June; incurable political junkies probably even know what the result was. I was rather intrigued to see a gerundive in the news.

A gerundive is a rather funny thing, and it's easiest to explain it by analogy.

In English we can take a verb, add -able to the end, and make an adjective. Doable, watchable readable, desirable etc. It's an adjective that means this-verb-can-potentially-be-done-to this task, this film, this book, this goat etc. You can even make a noun out of it and talk about the expendables, the undesirables, or, I suppose, the watchables*.

In Latin you could take a verb, add -endum to the end, and make an adjective that meant "this verb absolutely must be done to it". The most obvious example surviving in English is agenda, which in Latin means "the things that have to be done". But there's also referendum which is the thing that has to be referred [to the people]. And there's a memorandum which is the thing that has to be remembered. And there's Amanda, the girl that you absolutely have to love (not to mention Miranda, the girl that you have to wonder about). That's a gerundive.

There are a few more obscure gerundives skulking in the OED, like the corrigendum (that which must be corrected) and the explandandum (the thing that must be explained). There are also a few disguised ones. A dividend is the thing that must be divided [between the shareholders], and a legend was originally a legendum, a lesson that had to be read in church on a particular day. That then shifted to mean anything that was read, and ended up as a jolly good story.

And of course there are a few in actual Latin. If I challenge you to prove a particular thing, you can set off on a line of logic until you've got to the desired result at which point you can say QED, quod erat demonstrandum, which (quod) was (erat) the-thing-that-must-be-demonstrated (demonstrandum). There's mutatis mutandis, which means when you've changed (mutatis) the things that must be changed (mutandis). And then there's dear old Carthago delenda est, which means Carthage is must-be-destroyed.

But as anybody will tell you there's no gerundive in English. Well, to be honest, not anybody will tell you that. There are probably whole droves of people who don't think about gerundives from one week to the next. But any classicist will tell you that there's no gerundive in English. But they're wrong. There is, and there has been for about thirty years now.

A quick consultation with Mr Google shows that in the last 24 hours the news has referred to "a must-have Christmas gift", a "must-read response", and "must-have sexy essentials for holiday fun"**.

Now, that formation looks to me exactly like a gerundive. It's formed with the prefix must- followed by the verb, but it's doing precisely and exactly the same job. You could even form a noun and talk about "this season's must-haves". And a quick consultation with Mrs Ngram shows that the usage only took off in the 1980s. Here's a graph.

So English does have a gerundive, and has had this new grammatical form for thirty years now. After lying dormant like a grammatical King Arthur for a thousand years, it has arisen.

Speaking of this season's must-reads. A Christmas Cornucopia remains out. It's been out and proud for five whole days now and remains the perfect Christmas gift. Also I'll be doing talks and readings on:

November 15th at Hungerford Bookshops
17th at The Bookcase in Lowdham Nottinghamshire
25th at Rossiter Books, Ross-on-Wye
26th Hay Winter Festival
December 3rd Blackwells Oxford
8th Waterstones Gower Street

As a little post script. The word referendum isn't recorded in classical Latin, it was invented to describe Swiss political processes; it can also mean "a memo that must be referred to a superior", and Fowler says that the plural should be referendums as referenda is ambiguous and could mean "several things that are referred to the people" or "one thing referred to the people several times".

*I'm am not for a second suggesting that The Expendables is watchable. It's a crime against the great glories of late 80s action movies.

**Very well, here's the link. Although I should warn you that I don't believe you could actually pass that off as a relaxation aid, even in South Africa.


  1. Nice to see Molesworth featuring among your pixels although your "mutatis mutandi" seems to be an unwelcome mutation from "mutatis mutandis" which has the additional joy of being an ablative absolute.

    Perhaps you have Kennedy to hand and can check with him?