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The Word

Prii, Prix, Priora...

What's the plural of Prius?

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jan Freeman
December 23, 2007

"You were right that Prius is the neuter nominative/accusative singular of the adjective prior," wrote Christopher Casey. But the plural forms of the word - which means "earlier, better, more important" - would be Priora, not Prioria.

And Alkibiades Perikles saw where I got that extra i: Latin comparatives like prior, he wrote, are "the chief exception to the rule that adjectives of the third declension belong to the i-stem declension."

Sounds pretty convincing. But with the plural question simmering anew at Matthew Yglesias's blog, where commenters have suggested Prii, Prix, Priapic, and Suburban as candidates, I wanted to triple-check. So I put the question to Harry Mount, author of the new book "Carpe Diem," a paean to the joys of Latin.

"Yes, it's Priora," he told me, "because it's neuter plural. But if you cheated a bit and made the car masculine or feminine - and I do think of cars as female - then it would be Priores. And Priores has nice undertones of grandness - Virgil used it to mean 'forefathers' or 'ancestors."'

So if your hybrids are named for the dames of ancient Rome - Drusilla, Octavia, Agrippina - you're granted poetic license. Otherwise, Priora is the Latin plural you're looking for.

. . .

TILTING AT SPANISH: If we say Don Quixote's name kee-HOH-tay, asked Roger Rouleau, why is the adjective form, quixotic, pronounced kwik-SAHT-ik instead of kee-HOH-tik?

The short answer is: It's an American thing. In Britain, Don Quixote is usually called KWIK-sit, as he has been since his literary debut 400 years ago. (In French he's Quichotte, in Italian Chisciotte.)

Americans, however, prefer to aim for the Spanish: "Kee-HOH-tee is the dominant pronunciation and the quasi-Spanish kee-HOH-tay, though not usually listed [in dictionaries], is often heard," writes Charles Harrington Elster in "The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations."

But the way we say the proper name Quixote has nothing to do with the pronunciation of quixotic: After centuries as an English adjective, it's beyond the reach of its Castilian progenitor.

. . .

FIGHTING WORDS: Sometimes I feel a twinge of envy for my colleague Alex Beam, whose abundant hate mail fills a monthly podcast. Then I remember: I hate conflict! But this year brought a couple of dissents worth sharing.

First was the one - provoked, I admit - from a grammar guru whose blog claimed that quicker could not be an adverb. I wrote to protest: Even her dictionary labeled it an adverb, I noted, as did most usage guides.

I was wasting my keystrokes. "I don't agree that quicker is an adverb," she tersely replied. "So your truth just doesn't happen to match mine in this case."

Indeed.

At the opposite end of the volubility spectrum was a guy who thought I should be offended if a flight attendant handing out bagels responded to my "Thanks" with "Mm-hmm."

"'Mm-hmm' is a slightly more pleasant version of the grunt," he insisted. "It says 'I can't be troubled to say the right thing.'...Maybe she should just mumble 'whatever.' Why not? That's what she really thinks....You're a language writer - so support the language. Don't just watch it swirl around the drain."

A week or two later, on the phone with my sister, I thanked her for something, and what was her reply? A cheery "Mm-hmm!" Maybe I'm inured to the usage, having grown up with peaceable Midwesterners, but only a paranoid imagination could have heard that "Mm-hmm" as dismissive.

My conclusion hasn't changed: If you want to hear rudeness in responses like "Mm-hmm," or "Sure thing" or "No problem," well, it's your blood pressure. But surely it's also rude to go around taking offense when none is intended.

. . .

WE HEART EGGCORNS: Buried in last spring's eggcorn bounty was a delightful one spotted in the Concord Monitor by Barbara Richardson of Amsdem, Vt.: "The family...would like to send a heart-filled thank you."

Heart-filled as a replacement for heartfelt was new to me, and it hasn't hit the Eggcorn Database, where such creative misunderstandings are catalogued. But it nets more than 1,500 Google hits.

It's a plausible reanalysis, since we say hearts are "filled" with emotion. Still, heart-filled, formed like air-filled and cream-filled, would more logically mean "full of hearts" - or "filled with heart," I suppose, if the subject was a deli sandwich.

Then there's the heartful thanks alternative, found in both print and Web sources. It too may spring from an eggcornish mishearing of heartfelt, but unlike heart-filled, it can't be called an error: Its first recorded use - heartfully, "cordially, wholeheartedly" - is more than 600 years old.

WHAT'S THE PLURAL of Prius? When asked that last spring, I dredged up some remnants of high-school Latin and guessed "Prioria" in a blog item on Brainiac. But recently, a couple of corrective e-mails have drifted in.

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