What do you call yourself? A grammar lover, grammar peever, stickler, grammar grouch, grammando, grammar Nazi? Sure, it's all in fun, but it's time to rethink that last one.
When I’m asked to give people a bio, a paragraph about myself, I often end it with the sentence “She hates the phrase ‘grammar Nazi’ and loves the word ‘kerfuffle.’" This isn’t a new sentiment—you can see it in the bio for my TED talk from 2015—but it suddenly seems more relevant and more important.
Some of you might remember the Soup Nazi character from the ‘90s TV show “Seinfeld” who was mean and had strict rules about how his customers should behave and would often shout “No soup for you!” if customers didn’t fall in line. People had used “Nazi” before “Seinfeld” to imply that someone was harsh or strident about rules, but it’s likely that the character on “Seinfeld” made it more common.
My dislike of the name “grammar Nazi” had never seemed important enough to write about, but that was before we had Nazis openly marching in our streets with swastikas and torches.
Nazis Are Evil (I Can't Believe I Have to Say This)
The Nazis represent an ideology of hate, they committed genocide, and the world fought a terrible war to defeat them. Historians estimate that between 50 and 80 million people died in World War II, including about 14 million people in Holocaust death camps.
Just last month I was in Europe and saw firsthand some of the destruction from World War II and heard stories of towns that only escaped devastation because German bombs failed to detonate. Europe hasn’t forgotten the price they paid to defeat the Nazis because it happened on their soil, but sometimes it seems as if, far away, America has forgotten.
I like word history as much as I like world history, and I often tell you about words whose meanings have changed—like “egregious,” which used to mean “good” and now means “bad,” and the word “drapes,” which people used to think was a wholly unacceptable replacement for the word “curtains.” I’m not generally opposed to language change. As I said in my TED talk, language changes because we vote for or against new words and new meanings. Well, I cast the strongest vote I can against the phrase “grammar Nazi.”
If You Love Language, You Know That Words Matter
If you’re the type of person who might be tempted to call yourself a grammar Nazi, then presumably you care about accuracy and being precise with your words. You probably dislike language change more than I do, for heaven’s sake! And if you’re a language fanatic, you know that words have power. There’s a reason politicians hire consultants to help them find the most acceptable words to call things and companies rebrand when their reputation gets so bad they can’t get the stink off their name: words have associations that matter. And there’s a reason marginalized groups try to reclaim the words that have been used as slurs against them: words can have power against people, and it’s possible to take away that power. Using offensive words often or in a light or mocking way can make them less offensive. It’s one reason swear words lose their offensiveness over time and we have to come up with new offensive words to shock people.
So let’s vote against lightening the meaning of the word “Nazi.” Let’s vote to preserve our collective memory that a “Nazi” is evil, that Nazis are people we won’t tolerate, and that it’s an ideology we rightly fight against. Let’s not make “Nazi” a generic term for someone who is picky or strident or annoying or precise. You probably wouldn’t call yourself a grammar serial killer or a grammar terrorist or say that you’re part of grammar ISIS, so don’t call yourself a grammar Nazi.
And now, I’ve left you with the problem of what you should call yourself. I actually don’t use any kind of label like this for myself—I just say I love language or I love words—but other writers have suggested alternatives to “grammar Nazi.”
Alternatives to 'Grammar Nazi'
Andy Hollandbeck, a columnist for copyediting.com, has recommended the term “errorist.” Lizzie Skurnick, a writer for The New York Times Magazine, has recommended “grammando.” John McIntyre of “The Baltimore Sun” coined the term “peeververein” (a blend of the word “peever” and the German word for “club” or “association), and Simon Horobin, a professor of English and literature at Oxford, surfaced the word “grammaticaster,” which was used by the famous dictionary writer Samuel Johnson to describe a “mean verbal pedant.” Stan Carey, a frequent writer for the Macmillan Dictionary blog, has compiled a large collection of alternatives including many of those I’ve already mentioned plus “grammar grouch” and “language crank.”
I don’t love any of those suggestions, but they’re better than “grammar Nazi.” Also, I do like the term “grammarista” after “fashionista.” The “-ista” suffix is simply the Italian or Spanish version of the “-ist" suffix, which means “someone who practices or is concerned with something.” So if you’re a “grammarista,” you’re someone who practices or is concerned with grammar. Some people would argue that “grammarista” is too positive to replace the sentiment of “grammar Nazi,” but many people who proclaim themselves to be “grammar Nazis” do so proudly, as if it’s a good thing. So if that’s you, “grammarista” is a great replacement.
Your Quick and Dirty Tip is to avoid calling yourself a “grammar Nazi.” You have better alternatives.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.