FOR PETE'S SAKE!
BY BARBARA WALLRAFF
Carol Norce, of Hartford, Conn., writes: "Three of my grandchildren, Kathryn, Sarah and Will, ages 4 to 10, were discussing the expression 'for the love of Pete.' Can you tell us who Pete is and how this phrase came to be symbolic of frustration? The whole family is happy they have chosen the phrase in preference to some of the more modern statements that language offers."
"Pete," in this phrase and also in "for Pete's sake," isn't a person but a forerunner of political correctness: "For the love of Pete" was coined exactly so that people could use it in preference to less polite equivalents. As the Oxford Dictionary of Slang explains, the name is "a euphemistic substitute for 'pity,' itself used in oaths in place of 'God' and 'Christ.'" The slang dictionary's big sister, the Oxford English Dictionary, contains several citations for "Pete" used in this way. The earliest of them is from 1924 and is American.
Jordan S. Price, of Lake Arrowhead, Calif., writes: "I am a graduate student at Northern Arizona University, and last semester a fistfight nearly broke out regarding the proper use of 'a' and 'an' before our program title. We are students in the Master of Public Administration (M.P.A.) program. If you say 'master,' it sounds like we should use 'a,' but if you say 'M.P.A.,' the 'M' sounds like 'em,' and 'an' sounds much more fluid than the 'a.' Which is right?"
And some people think no one cares about the fine points of language anymore! Still, for the sake of your future career I wish that you had considered negotiating, not violence, before coming to me. Both "a" and "an" used as you've described them are correct. Whenever a word or an abbreviation begins with a consonant sound, "a" is the right article. When it begins with a vowel sound, "an" is right. So it's "a master's degree" but "an M.P.A."
Paul Bayley, of Pleasant Hill, Calif., writes: "Can you explain why it has become so fashionable to misuse the word 'myself'? When I hear a college-educated professional say 'Myself or someone else from the office will get back to you on that,' I want earplugs. Please also explain when 'myself' is correct."
I, too, know plenty of people who use "myself" in ways I wouldn't, and I suspect they do it because they're not sure whether "I" or "me" would be right. Choosing between "I will get back to you" and "Me will ..." is a no-brainer. But in your example sentence, "or someone else from the office" threw the speaker off track.
The difference between "I," "me" and "myself" is easy: When you're the subject of a verb (or one of the subjects, as in your example), you're "I." Almost anywhere else, you're "me." And when you're "I" but want to refer to yourself again in the same sentence, even if only for emphasis, then you're "myself." "I will write myself a reminder." "I will get back to you myself."
Barbara Wallraff is the author of the nationally best-selling book "Word Court" and a senior editor and words columnist at The Atlantic Monthly. Send your language disputes and questions to Word Court, Box 67375, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467 or visit www.wordcourt.com. All mail becomes the property of Word Court.
© 2003 Barbara Wallraff