The Grammarphobia Blog

Can the White House talk?

Q: Quick question. What is the term for a statement like “the White House replied” or “the Mayor’s office said” or “the record company claimed”? In other words, what is it called when inanimate objects make statements?

A: It’s amazing how many of the quick questions that pop up in our inbox aren’t so quick to answer.

There are several terms for giving inanimate objects human attributes. But do the phrases “White House,” “mayor’s office,” and “record company” refer strictly to inanimate objects?

We don’t think so, and many dictionaries agree with us.

Let’s look at “White House” first. Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines it: “The popular name for the official residence of the President of the United States at Washington; hence, the President or his office.”

So the term “White House,” according to the OED, can refer to the president’s residence, the president himself, or the presidency.

We’d expand on that, as the online Macmillan Dictionary does, to include “the people who work at the White House, including the President.”

Many standard dictionaries also offer expansive definitions of the term “office.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, says it can refer to “the administrative personnel, executives, or staff working in such a place.”

The online Collins English Dictionary says it can mean “the group of persons working in an office” while Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) says it can mean “all the people working in such a place.”

The word “company” has been people oriented since it first showed up (spelled compainie) around 1250, according to the OED.

It originally meant companionship, and etymologically refers to people sharing bread. In Latin, com- means “with” and panis means “bread.”

In modern English, the word “company” still has that sense of companionship, as in having “company” over for dinner or keeping “company” with someone.

In the commercial sense, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), it refers to “an association of persons for carrying on a commercial or industrial enterprise.”

What, you ask, is the technical term for the phenomenon that occurs when a building or an office or a company issues statements?

Well, one possibility is “personification,” a figure of speech in which inanimate objects are given human qualities. For instance, “The house welcomed us back after our long vacation.”

Another possibility is “metonymy,” which refers to substituting a word or phrase for a related one. For example, the use of “Hollywood” to stand for the American film industry, including the people in it.

Still another possibility is “pathetic fallacy,” a literary term for giving human feelings to a natural phenomenon, like “somber clouds” or “nasty wind.”

The 19th-century British critic John Ruskin coined the term “pathetic fallacy” in attacking sentimentality in poetry.

No matter what you call it, we suspect that the usage originated as newspaper shorthand. Why waste all that ink and paper on “Whosis Q. Whatsis, a spokesman for the president,” when “the White House” gets the point across?

The earliest examples we could find were in newspaper articles from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Here’s a “company” example from a March 3, 1888, article in the New York Times about  a strike against the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad: “Local freights, the company says, are being moved in Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska.”

And here’s one from an Aug 6, 1889, article in the Deseret News in Salt Lake City about a dispute between the postmaster general and Western Union about telegraph rates:

“The company says the Postmaster-general has thus been able to occupy and use streets in large cities regardless of local authority, and almost regardless of the public opinion.”

A Nov. 23, 1912, article in the Boston Transcript has 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue mum about an offer by Andrew Carnegie to provide pensions for American presidents:

“The White House is silent, for obvious reasons, but close friends of the President are confident that Mr. Taft would not accept a pension from this source.”

An Oct. 9, 1913, article in the New York Times about a confrontation between the White House and the Senate notes that “what the White House said appeared to mollify those senators who had let their angry passions rise.”

As for “office,” here’s an example from an Oct. 30, 1938, article in the Pittsburgh Press about a proposed agreement to end a strike by retail clerks against 35 department stores:

“The Mayor’s office said that the pact was a ‘tentative agreement’ which must obtain approval of both the union and the retailers’ council.”

If you’d like to read more about personification, we had a post on the blog some time ago about referring to countries and ships as “she.”

Check out our books about the English language