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A matter of opinionating

IN OMAHA Wednesday to promote his immigration reform package, President Bush assured his audience that consensus was just around the corner back in Washington, despite ``all the sharp elbows being thrown and the people opinionating and screaming and hollering."

Opinionating? Well, it's clear enough; if people with strong views are opinionated, then opinionate is a logical verb to describe spreading one's opinions around. And it's stronger than opine, which can sound a bit stuffy. But is it legit?

That depends on the rules you choose. If you play Scrabble with Merriam-Webster's Collegiate at your elbow, don't try opinionate (though you'll find it in M-W's Unabridged). But both American Heritage (4th edition) and the New Oxford American (2d), mention opinionate, the verb, as the source (now ``obsolete" or ``rare") of opinionated.

And 400 years ago, opinionate was standard English, though writers in need of a verb meaning ``believe, express an opinion about" could also choose opine or opinion. ``Pythagoras opinionated [the soul] a Number moving of it selfe," says a 1643 tract cited in the Oxford English Dictionary. Opine has since pulled far ahead in the popularity contest, but that doesn't mean opinionate is dead.

In fact, opinionate has appeared in American newspapers regularly (though not frequently) in the past couple of decades. Only The New York Times seems to have banned it (except for on the Web, wher they have a blog called ``The Opinionator"); a Nexis search turns up just one citation, from 1983, when William Safire noted that columnists ``earn their living by opinionating." Other print outlets have been more tolerant, though, and on uncensored Google, opinionating gets about 30,000 hits.

So why not welcome it back? Yes, some people--those who cringe when empathetic and preventative pop up in place of their shorter synonyms--will say that opinionate is just a multisyllabic alternative to opine, with nothing to recommend it.

But consider the case of commentate: That verb, though a much later coinage than opinionate, has made itself useful, distinguishing plain comment (``say something") from the more regular (and often remunerated) activity of sports and political commentators. Commentate has its detractors, but dictionaries, usage commentators, even Times editors accept it.

And opinionate seems to be taking a similar path; it's not, usually, a mere synonym for opine, but a word for habitual or professional opinion-mongering. You may wish we didn't need such a word, but with all the bloviating and spinning and punditing going on, a not-too-pejorative verb for the activity would come in handy. So how about two cheers for opinionate? We could do a lot worse.

. . .

NAME THAT BABY: Hey, I'm as surprised as you are to find Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie on The Word's back porch. Blame it on The Guardian: Soon after the couple's daughter arrived, the London paper ran a column that explored the blogosphere's fretting over Shiloh Nouvel Jolie-Pitt's name.

That was innocent fun; the debate, which has probably reached Pluto by now, focuses on whether Nouvel-- French for ``new"--ought to have been the feminine form, Nouvelle. But then there was the headline: ``Has baby Jolie-Pitt been correctly conjugated?"

No, no, no, she hasn't! Because conjugation has nothing to do with nouns and adjectives; it's what we do with verbs. You sing, he sings; she conjugates, we conjugate. What the story (and everyone with a semester's worth of French under his or her ceinture) is asking is why the baby's name doesn't agree in gender with her little-girlhood. If she's belle, why isn't she nouvelle?

The question, however, has less to do with French inflections than with American naming conventions. When we have male and female versions of a name--Daniel and Danielle, Joseph and Josephine--we expect to see them properly assigned.

But it's not likely than a mom named Angelina Jolie overlooked the gender question or ``misspelled" her daughter's name. No, the explanation that makes sense--among all the theories out there--is that Nouvel is Brad Pitt's nod to a favorite French architect, Jean Nouvel. Because it's a surname, it wouldn't change its gender to suit the sex of its new owner. (If Patti LaBelle's son used her name, he wouldn't make it LeBeau.)

Of course, Shiloh could abandon her middle name when she's old enough to have an opinion. For that matter, she might renounce her parents and all their works, move to Kansas, and change her name to Jennifer. But I promise you won't hear about it from me.

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