Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Frings and Other Things

Posted by Neal on August 16, 2004

Glen has taken up my challenge to find another word that behaves semantically like frings. What are the stakes here? If he succeeds, he will have robbed my indignation of its righteousness. That is, if my complaint is that this word’s behavior is totally unnatural, unlike anything else in the language, then Glen’s finding another word is enough to establish at least a little bit of a pattern, and trash my argument. If I still don’t love frings, it’s just due to my own cussedness. Therefore, it behooves me to spotlight the differences between his examples and my frings. Luckily, the differences are there.

First, I’ll address the easy ones. Glen writes:

Politics. Most people use it with a singular verb, but a respectable minority use it with a plural verb…. One eminent example: Winston Churchill said, “Politics are almost as exciting as war and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics, many times.”

Like frings, words such as politics, economics, and linguistics have what looks like a plural ending, and are often used with plural verbs. (In other words, they are or can be morphologically plural.) And like frings, these words have no meaning in the singular: *politic, *economic, and *linguistic do not exist as nouns (only as adjectives). But unlike frings, these nouns are not semantically plural: They are abstract nouns referring to fields of study. By contrast, when someone talks about frings, they are definitely talking about more than one object, just as they are when they talk about cars or telephones. In addition to abstract nouns like politics, there are the concrete nouns scissors, pants, and shorts. These, too, are morphologically plural, and can be semantically singular: These pants can refer to one object. They can also be semantically plural, as in “All my pants are torn,” but they’re still different from frings in that frings has to be semantically plural.

Now how about this example, which Glen has the audacity to throw back in my face?

Neal, back on Agoraphilia, you made a post about troops. It’s a plural noun that (at least for you and many other English speakers) has no singular, because you can’t have “a troop of one.”

This one is closer. It’s morphologically plural, has no singular meaning (for many speakers, under the non-collective meaning), and furthermore is semantically plural: troops is definitely referring to some number of soldiers higher than one. Glen goes on:

Some other possible examples: Rapids, as in the fast section of a river. For the definition of rapid that relates to rivers, my dictionary says the word is “usually pl.” You don’t often hear about someone who “shot a rapid.” Falls, as in a cascade of water. For the definition of fall that relates to water cascades, my dictionary says the word is “usually pl., often with sing. v.” You don’t often hear someone say, “Look at the beautiful fall.”

Again, he’s chosen telling examples: morphologically plural, no meaning for the singular, and semantically plural. Here is what I think the crucial difference between these words and frings is: Even though we don’t use the singular troop, rapid, and fall, there is an obvious meaning for these forms if they were to be used: one soldier, one hump of water passing over a rock, one waterfall. (In fact, I even found an attestation of one troop.) But what, as I have pointedly asked Glen and Dad, what would one fring be?

Now there is one answer they could give, one that’s so simple I was surprised I never thought of it in all these years: A fring is either a french fry or an onion ring. Wasn’t that easy? Any member of the union of the set of french fries and the set of onion rings is a fring! Just like you could define mammal as “squirrel or bat or horse or elephant or human or gorilla….” But wait. For fring, the only definition that you can use to link these two different items is the disjunctive one. Fries and onion rings by themselves are not a natural class. You could put them in the larger category of “appetizers,” or “fried side items,” but then you’d have to let in stuffed mushrooms, fried okra, and potato skins, too. Mammals, on the other hand, are a natural class, and can be defined without disjunctions, like this: “vertebrate animals that have fur and a four-chambered heart, nurse their young, and are endothermic”. (Thanks to David Dowty for some thought-provoking discussion on these disjunctive definitions.)

At this point, frings still behaves differently semantically from the other examples, specifically in having an irreducibly disjunctive definition. The only problem now is what to do with some other pesky long-existing words with irreducibly disjunctive definitions: brother/sister-in-law, aunt, uncle. All I can offer here is that whereas separate terms exist for the two components of frings (i.e., fries and onion rings), such terms don’t exist for the two different kinds of brother- or sister-in-law, or aunts, or uncles. A member of the set of frings will be a fry or a ring, but a member from the set of uncles will be an uncle or … an uncle.

I think I dodged that last bullet. But too bad, when I was writing my post about bell peppers the other night, I suddenly realized that I had found another example of a frings-type word: morphologically and semantically plural, no meaning for the singular. I was thinking about the way a grocery store here sells packages containing one red, one yellow, and one green bell pepper, and labels them “Stoplight Peppers.” Pick out any pepper from one of these packages, and it won’t be a stoplight pepper. It’ll be a red, yellow, or green pepper. And I can’t just define stoplight pepper as bell pepper, since that definition would include orange and purple bell peppers, too. So why did I chuckle at this term, while I still grit my teeth at frings? I guess the answer must just be that I’ve mellowed out between the time I first heard fring and when I ran across stoplight peppers.

Curses, Glen wins! But let the record show: It wasn’t his arguments that closed the case–it was my example, mine! I could have kept it quiet, but no, that would have been incompatible with my deep respect for good sportsmanship and unflinching intellectual honesty.

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5 Responses to “Frings and Other Things”

  1. Considering your “stoplight peppers” example, come to think of it, any time you have a package of “assorted widgets” you have a fring situation. Any single widget from the package is not an “assorted widget” because assortment is a property of multiple widgets, not singular ones; rather, it’s a particular kind of widget.

    So, you could perhaps consider “frings” to be shorthand for “assorted fries and rings.”

  2. Neal said

    True. But take a widget out and it’s still a widget, even if it’s not an assorted one. Take out a fry or a ring, and it’s still just a fry or a ring, not a fring. I’d just say “assorted” is one of those adjectives that can only be applied to semantically plural things. “Extinct” is another example, as illustrated by its misuse in this syllogism: “Tyrannosaurus rexes are extinct. Sue is a T. rex. Therefore, Sue is extinct.”

  3. I’m not sure how that invalidates my example, though. Or, rather, invalidates mine and leaves yours intact. Take a stoplight pepper out of the package and it’s still a pepper, even if it’s not a stoplight one.

  4. Neal said

    Chris,
    While I was doing the dishes tonight, I all of a sudden got your point. I’d missed it because I was focusing too much on ‘frings,’ and not on ‘stoplight peppers.’ Even so, I think ‘stoplight peppers’ is more like ‘frings’ than ‘assorted widgets’ because I think it’s still a compound word, not an adjective+noun combination. So, unlike you, I can’t say, “This pepper is a stoplight one” any more than I can say, “This house is a bird one.” But who knows, it might develop that this compound is the spark that will turn ‘stoplight’ into a full-blown adjectives with all rights and privileges thereunto appertaining. And in that eventuality, it will be fully parallel to ‘assorted widgets.’

  5. Something else I remember on a vaguely related subject…

    When I was a kid, one of those Schoolhouse Rock cartoons was about eating beans and rice together. One of the lines of the song was “Beans and rice is nice.” Of course it bugged me to hear them using “is” instead of “are” when talking about two subjects—but then I realized they were talking about “beans and rice” as being the name of a single food dish, like “chicken and dumplings.” You don’t say “Chicken and dumplings are delicious,” you say it is delicious because it’s actually a single noun.

    Perhaps not quite the same thing as frings, but it did remind me.

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