November 26, 2012

The suffix "-bonics"

Justice J. Michael Eakin of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has used the term "legalbonics," which he described in 2012 as content-free comments or "stupid" objections.  The justice called clumsy legal writing "legalbonics" in 2009 as well, perhaps referring to what is normally called legalese.  (Pennsylvania Bar Institute, Legal Writing for the 21st Century).  A 2005, anonymous cite for "legalbonics" is here.

The suffix "-bonics" must be from the dimly remembered "Ebonics" controversy of the 1990s--a proposal that schools reach out to black children by giving lessons in the children's putative style of English, named from "ebony" + "phonics."  From this, "-bonics" has been taken jocularly to denote "a way of speaking."  I have found a few instances of the use of bonics from the era, meaning 1) some local dialect ("Bubba-bonics"1 in Citrus County, Florida) or 2) some disparaged false dialect (Newt-bonics2; Pol-bonics3 [half-Polish English]; hick-bonics4).

Most striking about legalbonics (coming from a public figure like Justice Eakin) is that today it's a little bit non-politically-correct.  Grouping black English in with clumsy legal writing ignores the insistence of many linguists that black English has its own consistent grammar and other features.  Using "-bonics" is meant to evoke the Ebonics controversy and righteous indignation about teaching black English, as in the 1990s quotes footnoted below.  However, it's hard to imagine Judge Eakin is evoking that in lectures to lawyers--there may be some continuing, oral use of the "-bonics" idea that's hard to find on the internet, and that has become a regular vocabulary item for bad or confused English.

For a grammar grinch like me--better, a lexicon-grinch--most striking is the peculiar creation of a suffix.  "Ebonics" really has the suffix "-ics"; the "-on-s" of "ebony" and of "phonics" were creatively (or lamely) lined up.    "Phonics" (from the Greek φωνή "sound of the voice" + "-ics," from -ικός, denoting a noun) is the source of the "-ics" suffix.  The coiners of "legalbonics" and other terms are create a new "-bonics" suffix for (bleh) comic effect.

1. Greg Hamilton, "Hey Bubba, whut chew think a' dis Ebonics nonsense?" St. Petersburg Times Jan. 5, 1997, 2.
2. George J. Wilberg, Letter to the Editor, Newsweek, March 3, 1997, 12.
3. Mary McGrory, "The GOP's Newt-bonics," Washington Post, Dec. 29, 1996, C1.
4. Kenneth Li, "Hick Meets Sick," Daily News [New York], May 4, 1997, 42.

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