The Grammarphobia Blog

A question of authority

Q: Why do so many people mistakenly insert “of” in the name of the NY agency that runs tunnels, bridges, and airports? And is there a term for using “of” where it has no right to be?

A: If there’s a term for sticking “of” where it doesn’t belong, we’re not aware of it.

But we too have noticed that many people say and write the “Port of Authority” instead of the “Port Authority.”

Our guess is that the people who incorrectly insert “of” here are influenced by such phrases as “the Port of New York” and “the Port of New Jersey.”

Another reason might be that the agency’s full name does indeed contain “of.” In full, it’s the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

By the way, the agency was called the Port of New York Authority when the two states created it in 1921. So “of” originally followed “Port,” not “Authority.”

A reader of the blog suggests that’s why “the authority’s name was sometimes (and mainly orally) shortened to ‘the Port of Authority’ by some New Yorkers in the past and to this day.”

It wasn’t until 1972 that New Jersey joined New York in the authority’s name, and the preposition moved to its present place: the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Why “authority” rather than agency, office, department, or whatever?

“The name was borrowed from the British,” Julius Henry Cohen writes in They Builded Better Than They Knew (1946), a book about the people responsible for the building of New York.

Cohen, a lawyer who helped draft the compact establishing the Port Authority, says the name was influenced by that of the Port of London Authority in Britain.

In case you’re wondering, the word “authority” entered English in the late 1300s, borrowed from the French autorité, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It initially referred to the “power to enforce obedience,” and didn’t come to mean “the body of persons exercising power” until the early 1600s.

[Note: The post was updated on June 5, 2017.}

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