Bright Ideas and True Confessions: How and What to Do and Why

Everyday Language Use for the SCA

Various Problems of the Olden Days

The following letter was distributed to nearly 100 people (quite a few in those days) in a fit of frustration. It did some good, for a while. There are nearly 20,000 people in the Society now, though, and I'm putting it out once more. The original was dated April 16, 1981.

Mistress AElflaed of Duckford sends fair greetings To Whom it may Concern (and it ultimately concerns us all):

I had planned to wait and write a fancy knock-'em-dead formal letter but this'll have to do; I can wait no longer. I'll get right to the point: A person is not an officer to a group. A king is not king to a country. This nasty usage is creeping into print more and more and has lately been even in Tournaments Illuminated, whence it could spread throughout the kingdoms, carried by those who trust all they see in print.

Is Mr. Reagan President to the United States? [1] Is Elizabeth Queen to England? No. The preposition should be "of." Since we're using a perfectly good language we might as well use it correctly.

Prime Minister to Canada Prime Minister for Canada Prime Minister of Canada
Secretary to State Secretary for State Secretary of State
Governor to New Mexico Governor for New Mexico Governor of New Mexico
Seneschal to Ansteorra Seneschal for Ansteorra Seneschal of Ansteorra

To be fair to the word "to" here, there is a way in which "Seneschal to ..." might be used properly." "He serves as seneschal to the king" as someone could be "secretary to the president" or "in service to the Crown." "In the service of the Crown" is still better. I am Seneschal of Atenveldt [2] and I could say I'm Their Majesties' seneschal, seneschal in service to Their Majesties, or Seneschal to Their Majesties, but the last can be avoided.

"Creative" can go too far. We do have to create and repair our anachronistic culture bit by bit but the English language has already been through the Middle Ages and all the forms we need have been established.

While I still have an audience I may as well throw in two more items of a similar nature:

  • knight marshal
  • lord marshal
  • earl marshal
  • field marshal
  • provost marshal
  • parade marshal

All these are marshals. In each case "marshal" is the noun and the preceeding word is the adjective. The plural of "knight marshal" is "knight marshals"; "knights marshal" as a singular or a plural just doesn't make sense. I think part of the confusion comes from the fact that the plural of "court martial" is "courts martial." The great difference is that "court" is the noun and "martial" is the adjective.

Two further points:

  • A knight marshal doesn't have to be a knight and an earl marshal doesn't have to be an earl. If it's really too confusing for everyday SCA use, perhaps we should just call them all marshals.
  • The modern spelling (meaning the most accepted spelling for the last few hundred years) is "marshal." Historical spellings included marescal, mareschal, maresshall, mareschaul, mareshall, mershall, marschaele, and a dozen others.

My last crusade is for the word "lists." The "lists" (and the noun is plural but can take singular or plural verbs) at a tournament refers to the fighting field. The particular verb "to list," from whence comes this noun, means to enclose or to shut in, as with rails, or to put a border around. When the Lists Mistress or Mistress of the Lists (please note the plural) writes your name down you're entering the tournament or signing up for the lists. When you walk onto the field you enter the lists.

So with this I claim the linguistic field, declare myself King-of-the-Syntactic-Mountain, and invite any comers to disprove my claims by honorable research. I further call on all officers and chronicler to cease these foul abuses unless and until my information may be proven wrong by some better scholar.

I am at your service,
(and it was signed)

P.S. If you don't believe me, check a good dictionary ("good" meaning, of course, one that will back me up). I used the Oxford English Dictionary and Webster's. American Heritage had no opinion one way or another, the matters being not American enough, I suppose.

Ten years later, there being no dispute, I consider to have won that battle, but I didn't pass it out as a flyer at the door to all the thousands of people who came later. I occasionally see a spurt of misuse still, especially in the confusion between the list of names on the sign up sheet and the lists/field. [3]



[1] I'm just going to leave that in for historical amusement. The first time I ever heard anyone talk about the SCA, the introduction to the talk went "Unbeknownst to President Nixon, the United States has been divided into four kingdoms." That's a funny memory; I like it.

[2] Remember we're in ancient history here - early Reagan days.

[3] Many in the Society call the lists "the Eric," some with the mistaken belief that is is a period term of some sort. It's a West Kingdom name for a red cloth field marker they had years ago which they called "Eric the Red." Countess Bevin Fraser of Stirling taught me that, and I understand from others that it is so. Twenty years from now if I read a historical novel that talks of knights entering the eric, I will know absolutely that the author (or his mom and dad) was in the SCA.

Copyright © by Sandra Dodd, 1991
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