There was an interesting post yesterday over at Language Log (by newest Language Logger Ben Zimmer) about the “perilous portmanteau” that people have been using as a nickname for Supreme Court nominee Judge Samuel Alito: Scalito, a blend of (Supreme Court Justice Antonin) Scalia and Alito. There has been a flurry of discussion about this blend in the news and on several blogs, much of it linked from Ben’s post. Here I’d just like to focus on the third update to Ben’s post, part of which reads (emphasis added):
Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard also takes offense at Scalito: “The nickname is misleading. The two men may share a vowel at the end of their last name. But, needless to say, they’re different people.”
At first, I’m thinking: this is so off the mark! Scalia and Alito share the whole VCV sequence ali, which is towards the end of Scalia and at the beginning of Alito. [Added later: another, perhaps better way to put it is that the first two syllables of both names includes the ali sequence, which is rhythmically identical in both cases.] That’s what makes the blend work (as a blend, putting aside how you might feel about its use). I had to read more of Continetti’s article in order to find out what he really meant.
Luckily, I didn’t need to go further than the very next paragraph, where all became clear:
I, too, in case you haven’t noticed, have a vowel at the end of my name, and so I find myself obliged, as a strange point of ethnic pride, to point out Scalia and Alito’s differences.
Continetti’s point seems to be that having a vowel at the end of your (last) name more or less identifies you(r name) as being of Italian (or at least “ethnic”) descent. I’m not suggesting that we hold Continetti to this point (at least not phonetically, where it’s easily counterexemplified by “non-ethnic” names ending in phonetic [i], orthographic ‘y’), but I do wonder why he chose to focus on a phonetic/orthographic fact about the two names that has nothing to do with the blend itself, nor with the main point of the article (the differences between Scalia and Alito as people and as judges). The only think I can think of is that it was just a strategy for inserting himself into the equation; the second quote above might as well read: “As a fellow Italian-American, I find myself obliged to make clear the differences between these two judges, who just happen to both be Italian-American.” So why even mention the final vowel business?
[Update: Ben Zimmer continues the discussion of “Scalito” here.]