Q: I’m writing about a faux pas during the hearings for Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court. The senators repeatedly addressed her as “general,” apparently unaware that “solicitor,” not “general,” was the important part of her title.
A: We find this usage clunky, but the solicitor general and the attorney general are routinely addressed as “general” inside the Beltway because that’s how the justices of the Supreme Court often address them.
In a May 4, 2009, interview with the National Law Journal, Kagan was asked how she felt about being addressed as “general.”
“A few more weeks, and I’ll be expecting everyone to salute me,” she said. “But seriously, I’ll tell you a story. Just after my confirmation, a member of the administrative office of the court called to ask me whether I wanted the justices to call me ‘general’ during oral argument.”
It was a “very considerate thing to give me the choice,” she said, adding that former Attorney General Janet Reno disliked being called “general.”
“But my thought basically was: the justices have been calling men SGs ‘general’ for years and years and years; the first woman SG should be called the same thing,” she concluded.
As you point out, the most important part of “solicitor general” is “solicitor.” That’s why it’s pluralized as “solicitors general.” Likewise, the plural of “attorney general” is “attorneys general.”
Interestingly, the word “general” was once the less important part of the military title, according to the language sleuth Dave Wilton.
The first general officer, he writes on his website, Wordorigins.org, was a “capteyn generall, an officer who had authority over the other captains, or commanders, in an army; in other words, the commander-in-chief.”
“This term dates to 1514 and is a lift from the French, who used the rank captain général,” Wilton says. “By 1576, the captain was being dropped from the title and superior officers were simply being addressed as general.”
One last point: the linguist Mark Liberman suggests that addressing an attorney general as “general” may have been “common practice at the state level, in some parts of the U.S., for a long time.”
Writing on the Language Log, Liberman notes that the judge in the Scopes trial in 1925 addressed the Tennessee attorney general as “general” – and out of courtesy addressed the other lawyers as “colonel.”
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