Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Have you been in a Wawa's?

I would like to pre-empt all discussion here by saying that this blog post is strictly motivated by linguistics, and has no relevance to the US presidential election.

This video of Mitt Romney speaking about his experience in a Wawa has been floating around my newsfeed this week.

Full Disclosure: Wawa is my convenience market of choice.

What strikes me most about this video is the fact that Romney repeatedly said "Wawa's" even though the name of the store is just "Wawa" with no "s."  First, there's the linguistic issue of why this was such a natural mistake for Romney to make. Second, there's the sociolinguistic issue about why this particular mistake seems so egregious.

On the first point, there is clearly a strong tendency for store names to be formed in the possessive, indicating their ownership (or at least that's the origin). For example, "Macy's" was founded by Rowland Hussey Macy, "Wanamaker's" was founded by John Wanamaker, etc. However, not all stores which have names clearly formed in the genitive follow the ordinary orthographic rules for possessives.  For example, "Starbucks" is named after the Moby Dick character Starbuck, but the official name doesn't have an apostrophe. Similarly, JCPenney, which today isn't formed in the genitive, used to go by "Penneys" according to this logo from Wikipedia, also lacking the apostrophe.

Perhaps this is some kind of specialized "commercial genitive," I don't know.

At the same time, there are a lot of store names which are not formed in the genitive for some reason or another. One example someone brought up to me is "Nordstrom," which has no "s" even though it was founded by John Nordstrom. It's a little mysterious to me why this might be, except its original name was "Wallin & Nordstrom" (as in Carl Wallin and John Nordstrom), and coordination structures wreak havoc on everything. A similar story could be told for "Barnes & Noble."  In fact, the one kind of business that I know to be named after coordinated personal names are law firms (like "Dewey, Cheatum & Howe") which seem to never be formed in the genitive. There's also this blog post from Linguism which discusses the question of which store names get formed in the genitive and which don't, and he concludes that store names which are originally acronyms, like "Asda" and "Tesco" and foreign imports, like "Aldi" are less likely to be in the genitive.

At the same time, there is also a lot of asymmetric variation. People seem to be likely to form an officially non-genitive store name in the genitive, but not vice versa. How many of you would blink if someone said "I went shopping at Aldi's."? But no one would say "I went into a Starbuck."

Update: Ben Zimmer informed me on Twitter that the "Friendly Ice Cream" company officially changed their name to "Friendly's" perhaps because that's what all their customers called them anyway. According to this slideshow from the Boston Globe, the name change happened in 1989.

The point of all this is that Romney was wading into very muddy linguistic waters when he started talking about Wawa, and it's not surprising he screwed it up.

Which brings us to the second point: Why was saying "Wawa's" such a big deal? I just said that I wouldn't blink an eye if someone said "Aldi's" and that's basically the same kind of error. But, and I'm trying to speak here as a Philadelphian and Wawa devotee, not as a partisan hack, when I heard him say "Wawa's" my reaction was "Oh, he doesn't know how it works."

In some ways, my reaction was similar to how I feel when someone screws up the correct use of determiners in proper names. For example, if someone said to me "I looked it up on the Wikipedia," I'd immediately know they were uninitiated to the internet. Similarly, if someone said "they were uninitiated to Internet," I'd immediately know they were hopelessly ignorant.

I think what it comes down to is that where there is variation, there is complexity, and where there is complexity, the ability to successfully navigate complexity the right way is an important social signal that you are the right kind of person. Consider, for example, the needlessly complex language surrounding Twitter, and the communal paroxysm of self satisfaction when a politician says "I sent out a twitter to my followers," or refers to the service as "Tweeter."

I don't think that reaction, or the reaction to Romney saying "Wawa's," is fundamentally different from the dirty word in linguistics: prescriptivism. A lot of prescriptivism is specific discrimination against politically, economically and socially marginalized people, but a lot of it also comes out of nowhere, and just turns into a really complex game that people play for the sake of showing they can play it. So be cautious, fellow linguists, because today's "Wawa's" and "Tweeters" are tomorrow's split infinitives and passive voice.


  1. I've been wondering about this forever (I forcefully stop myself from saying "Barnes and Noble's", though I really want to.)

    Another shibboleth: "blog" for "post", as in "I just wrote this blog about..." I hate it in the same way that others hate politicians referring to "a twitter" ...

  2. Adding an "s" to store names is not uncommon among Utah Mormons. I've heard references to "Walmart's", "J. C. Penney's", and so on. I wonder if Mitt Romney picked it up from his parents, who grew up in Utah.

    But I have to agree with Mr. Greene on "blog" for "post".

  3. I've thought in vain for many years (!) about the ins and outs of why people hallucinate these apostrophe-esses (or just the apostrophes). In Northern CA, there is (was?) a grocery chain called "Lucky" that my mom (non-native English speaker) consistently referred to as "Lucky's". She also says "Nordstrom's", and I hear that pretty often in Southern CA. I recently read about an event that would feature food and "Starbuck's coffee". (I agree about "Barnes & Noble" and other coordinations, though; I don't know that I've ever heard -- or would expect to hear -- "Barnes & Noble's".)

    But speaking of determiner usage: your G+ profile says you're "currently graduate student in Linguistics". Am I not in the know about some new mass-noun use of "graduate student"? :-)

  4. Another possessive mess: Ruth's Chris Steakouse.

  5. I think a mass-noun use of "graduate student" can be apt sometimes, as in "There was graduate student all over the seminar room after the first year syntax lecture." But my G+ profile is all about me being a piss poor copy editor.

    P.S. See RLG's comment about "Barnes & Noble's."

  6. In my town, Galway, there's a pub called "Massimo" that pretty much everyone calls "Massimo's" (or "Massimos"). I suspect many people would be surprised that the real name is not plural or in the genitive case.

    I've written about apostrophes in business names on my blog a few times, partly because people get so worked up over it – as was recently the case with Waterstones. While looking into the matter for a post a few years ago, I came across some research you might be interested in: "The supermarket storm: an investigation into an aspect of variation", by Lorraine Woodward, who investigates what she calls the "s-form" of supermarket names in the UK. It's available (in multiple files, awkwardly enough) at the foot of this page:


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