For Pete Sake

In at least on place alongside the Massachusetts highways, you can see a sign which says “Take a break. Stay awake. For safety sake.”

This isn’t quite “grammatical” – it seems you’d want a possessive there, as in “For safety’s sake”. A dumb mnemonic would be, “For the love of all that’s logical, whose sake is it you’re talking about?”

Hal and I were talking about this, and he suggested I start a protest movement to educate people on this point. We had a lovely vision of something along the lines of a Million Pedant March, with recursive self-explanatory chanting: “For Pete’s sake, for heaven’s sake, for goodness’ sake, for correctness’ sake, FOR SAFETY’S SAKE!!!”

As it happens, the mistake is well-established – it’s hard to grok the two esses in a row, and people drop the ‘s from the possessive. This is the sort of thing that cropped up a lot when writing was not as firmly established in English, and people were more concerned with representing the way they talked and sounded than making their written English logically consistent. We’re fussier now – see a good dictionary for details.

The word has an interesting history – it starts out meaning “Contention, strife, dispute”. Under the influence of Nordic legal traditions, this started being used in a legal sense like the way sake’s cognate is used in Old Norse. This is “Out of consideration for; on account of one’s interest in, or regard for (a person); on (a person’s) account.”. Thence our current usage.

So anyway, this presumably tiresome aside ties back into current events for me. The plans of ShrubCo. (thanks Molly Ivins and Mark Morford!) for war everlasting dredged a couple words from my memory – a fragment of a once-memorized larger hunk of Beowulf. They’ve been rattling around in my head – “singale sæce”. I had always lazily thought of this as “unending siege”, with sæce as the etymon of “sack”, as in “looters have thoroughly sacked the cultural institutions of that ancient city, Baghdad”. But it turns out that we got “sack” from the Italians in the 16th century, like so many of our other war-words, and the singale sæce which Grendel has against Hrothgar and the men of his main is actually a “sake”. An unending grudge.

3 Responses to “For Pete Sake”

  1. Ana Says:

    I’m so glad somebody else noticed this. I’ve been arguing the grammatical problems of this sign up and down the commonwealth. For shame!

    This is something that Lynne Truss of “Eats Shoots and Leaves” would appreciate. In Massachusetts, no less – a stronghold of higher education!!

    And here’s another… I was in a branch of the Boston Public Library when I noticed a sign for ESL practice sessions. It said, simply:

    “Come and practice your English.”

    This irks me. Why put a grammar error in a sign for people learning English?? It’s confusing! AND STUPID! “Come and practice your English”??

    Come TO practice your English, thank you.

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