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In a crazy place

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April June 27, 2009 11:25 AM

"The Court should return to the common-law doctrine of in loco parentis," said Clarence Thomas on Thursday, dissenting from the Supreme Court's 8-1 decision that strip-searching middle-schoolers for suspected contraband Tylenol was unconstitutional.

That conjured up unsettling images of parents strip-searching their own 13-year-olds, but it also reminded me to dig out a "loco parentis" variation I'd buried in a pile of notes.

It appeared last month in a Globe op-ed by the president of Wesleyan University, who was explaining how the killing of a student had changed his feelings about "in loco parentis," the notion that the institution stands in the place of a parent.

But he called it "in locus parentis." Twice. And unfortunately, an editor used one of those examples in the callout quote, in nice big type nobody could miss.

Now, I'm not going to profess any shock that a university president doesn't know his Latin declensions. The job has changed a lot in the past half-century, and as Peter Cook might have said,* You don't need the Latin for the fund-raisin'.

But "in loco parentis" isn't some obscure legal term; it's in English dictionaries, along with "ad nauseam" and "in toto" and other familiar tags. The American Heritage Dictionary has everything you might need to know: "Latin in locō parentis: in, in + locō, ablative of locus, place + parentis, genitive of parēns, parent." ("In locus" is just grammatically wrong, like "I believe in she.")

Just two days later, though, I heard a similar usage in a radio interview -- this time it was the even wronger "in locus parenti." That sent me searching, but it was slim pickings: Nexis news has only 11 cites over 30-plus years for "in locus parentis" (three of them in the Globe, one in the Times). Google has a measly 184 overall, along with hits for "in locum," "in local," "in loci," and the aforementioned "in locus parenti." So there's no need for Latin lovers to sound the alarm.

Still, I'm curious; are these random mistakes, or do some people feel an aversion to using "loco" -- given its colloquial sense of "crazy" -- in a dignified Latin phrase? Does "locus" sound better with "parentis," because they both end in s? Or is the word "locus" -- good English, after all, in its place -- just more familiar? Speculation is welcome, though no doubt fruitless.

*"Sitting on the Bench," from "Beyond the Fringe." If you're too young to remember it, you're young enough to find an MP3 of it.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at

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