“one step ahead of the Wangses”

Yes, another linguistics post.

Yesterday on The Economist’s Gulliver blog:

the status of being able to afford to go abroad, ensuring you keep one step ahead of the Wangses, may be a factor

This is almost certainly wrong ungrammatical. Our writer M.D. bases this turn of phrase on the idiom keep up with the Joneses. But in that usual one, we get an -ses because the surname is Jones. Since we can’t have Joness—because by English rules it would be pronounced /dʒoʊ’nɛs/, which really wouldn’t do—we change the -s prefix to -es, giving us the Joneses.

But the Chinese surname is Wang! There’s no word-final -s. The family with the last name Wang are the Wangs.

Lest I be accused of pedantry or prescriptivism here, allow me to note that “keep up with the Wangses” has merely 21 Google hits (although this number will probably rise when Googlebot sees this post), and that’s with “omitted results included”. “Keep up with the Wangs” on the other hand has 54,900 Google hits, and in the top few are a Wall Street Journal blog, an article in The Telegraph, a New York Times article (from 1993, no less), and a paper by a Princeton economics professor.

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