Daily Archives: September 27, 2021


Hey, why say “governor election” or “election for governor” when you can say “gubernatorial election,” am I right?

Of course, most of us don’t say “gubernatorial election” or “gubernatorial” anything else, but most of us aren’t in the news business or the writing-about-politics business, where the feedback seems to lead to genre-specific words that are meant to sound somehow more knowledgeable (cf. temblor and pontiff). This is a word that has a fancy machine sound to it, and its six syllables – two dactyls, like two long middle fingers aimed at each other – are impressive too. And, just incidentally, America’s favourite ex-robot (OK, he just played one in the movies) was sometimes styled the Gubernator (well, and sometimes the Governator).

On the other hand, gubernatorial also has that somewhat less-than-dignified sound of goober (to say nothing of booger). At least governor can be shortened to gov; imagine if it had to be gub – what a sound of a gobstopper, or perhaps a mouth submerged and drowning (gub, gub, gub). But if governor had retained its Latin form, that’s what it would have been, because the Latin original is gubernator, from which we get this strictly classical adjective.

And how did gubernator become governor? In the incessant production-response-and-revision cycle of speech, as it passed through Old French, the -nator was worn down to -neur, which became Middle English -nour and our modern -nor; and the [b] sound just softened over time to [v], a sound shift that won’t surprise anyone who speaks Spanish, in which the two sounds are treated as two versions of the same sound (which is why, for instance, the adjective from Havana is habanero). The same shift happened in the shimmy from Latin to French.

Oh, but don’t worry about our abilities to govern our tongues. It has ever been thus: consonants often go over time from stop to fricative, as in from [b] to [v], and even more often from voiceless to voiced, as in [k] to [g].* Which is another thing that has happened to this word. 

Because gubernator didn’t spring fully formed from the brow of Minerva or whoever. It came from Greek κυβερνήτης, kubernḗtēs, ‘steersman, pilot, guide’. But the interesting thing is that it came over in an organic, speech-based way; it didn’t get borrowed into Latin in the way many Greek words did: the κ didn’t become Latin c, and the υ wasn’t rendered in Latin as y, as was so typically the case. 

What that meant, though, was that when the Greek root was borrowed directly into English in 1948 to refer to feedback systems of communication and control, it could be borrowed using the usual Latin-styled transliteration and wouldn’t look like its Latinate descendant. In fact, since cybernetics has also had its pronunciation governed by English practices, you can’t even notice that it’s from the same root as gubernatorial. There’s no governetics and no cybernatorial.

Well, not yet, anyway. But once Skynet takes over our politics…

* They can also go in the other direction about as easily.