Sunday, March 16, 2014

Random thoughts on referendums and referenda

People who lay down the law on English should really check their facts first, especially perhaps, journalists. On this week's The News Quiz, first broadcast on 14 March 2014 and available on the BBC iPlayer until the 21st, journalist Hugo Rifkind proclaimed, quite gratuitously and with total certitude:
"The plural of referendum is referendums, not referenda"
On what authority, I wonder. The style guide of one of the publications he writes for (the Times and the Spectator) perhaps?

Referendums is certainly more common in Britain, but by no means has a monopoly. At the British National Corpus there are 83 instances of referendums and 30 of referenda. And in the States, referenda seems to be rather more common than referendums. This Ngram graph reflects use in a selection of British and American books:
It is true that some newspaper style guides, for example those of the Guardian and the Economist, stipulate referendums, but this is one of those rare cases where the rest of us have a choice, something Mr Rifkind only had to check a dictionary, virtually any dictionary, to discover. Here's Oxford Online:
noun (plural referendums or referenda /-də/)

Oxford Dictionaries Online

This is repeated at Longman (where referenda comes first), Cambridge (although they refer to referenda as formal) and Collins.
American dictionaries, such as Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage Dictionary (at The Free Dictionary) list both possibilities.
The word referendum comes from Latin, and there are no hard-and-fast rules in English as to making plurals from Latin and Greek words - some we give an English plural, such as museum / museums, others a Latin plural, for example axis / axes. Sometimes there are two different plurals depending on context - publishers talk of appendices while doctors talk of appendixes. And very occasionally we have a choice - cactuses or cacti, referendums or referenda. Usage, quite rightly, is the key.
Admittedly, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, those of us who prefer referenda are on rather shaky etymological ground, because referendum was the gerundive (something like a gerund, I think) of the Latin verb referre, and as such had no plural in Latin. Nevertheless, I simply prefer the sound of referenda, and like the fact that we have a choice.
The question didn't come up much in Britain before the second half of the 1970s, as before that referenda hadn't been part of the British constitutional process. Then we had one in 1975 on staying in the European Economic Community (as the EU was called in those days), and in 1979 we had two, on devolution for Scotland and Wales.
I remember there was quite a lot of discussion at the time as to what the plural should be, and I've always understood that it was the decision of the very influential BBC to plump for referendums that really swung it. Before that, it would seem that referenda was more common.
Searching Google Books brings up rather more hits for Swiss referenda than for Swiss referendums, while those for referendums or referenda in Switzerland are nearly equal.
Referenda has been used in at least one official British parliamentary report - 'but on which very question the Bill would seem to rule out referenda in Britain.' Google Books, but then so has referendums Google Books
It's also been used in the New Statesman - 'It was the constitutionalist A V Dicey who first advocated referenda in Britain at the end of the last century' Google Books
Altogether, 'referendums in Britain' gets 32 hits at Google Books to 21 for 'referenda in Britain'. Hardly a walkover.



  1. In Australia some years ago we were holding some referendums and the then Aust Attorney General, Gareth Evans was tired on this debate. He said that it must be referendums because you would never read the following sentence:
    The children sat on their ba, beating their dra and doing their sa.