Sunday, August 20, 2006

What should we call Pluto?

According to an article in the Washington Post recently discussed on the American Dialect Society mailing list, the "Planet Definition Committee" met in Prague in early August and proposed that Pluto should no longer be considered a planet. Instead, we should recognize a new "category of subplanets" of which Pluto will be a member, and which will be called Plutons.

Now I am not opposed to naming the new category after Pluto, but "Pluton" is too similar to the original word. In fact, it just another form of the same stem: in Latin, the "n" would be present in every form of the word "Pluto" except in the nominative singular (and therefore the vocative singular). It seems odd to refer to one individual subplanet by the nominative of a word, and to the whole class of subplanets by the oblique stem of the same word. It would have been courteous to supply at least a suffix.

Besides, the proposed name seems likely to be untranslatable. Ben Zimmer has already noted that the French form of Pluto is nothing other than Pluton -- French forms of Latin names tend to be based off the accusative form of the name, in this case "Plutonem". Will the French just call Plutos and Plutons by the same word? The language seems sufficiently plagued by homonyms already.

Par le bois du jinn où s'entasse de l'effroi,
Parle! bois du gin ou cent tasses de lait froid.

We also have Plutón in Spanish and Plutone in Italian.

Resti dunque quel birbon
Tra Proserpina e Pluton.
What is to be done to avoid this confusion?

The only solution, it seems to me, is to give a suffix to the little Plutons. Why has this not been done already? Do their enemies begrudge them even this small favor? Surely some hostile forces must be at work, saying, "If we must finally concede to the hated Plutons the honor of a name, let us at least be sure that they shall not have a proper one!" There is no need to be so stingy with our jots and tittles. We can spare a few letters for our neighbors, the subplanets. If necessary, thousands could probably be culled from the articles in academic journals with no recognizable loss of clarity.

But if the Plutons are given a suffix, what suffix should it be? I am partial to the diminutives, but it would be hard to choose between the contending charms of Plutitos, Plütchen, and Plutoncini; the last has a certain gastronomic appeal. Or we could give up the Roman gods, and name them "Planettes". But to please the sober tastes of the Scientists, I suggest "Plutonoids" (Pluto-like), which has a learned air, and is not too badly formed either.


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