Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Make Like a Chicken and Split

Posted by Neal on March 22, 2005

The newest (as far as I know) addition to the linguistiblogosphere is Heidi Harley’s HeiDeas (thanks to Semantic Compositions for quickly noticing and announcing it). In her second post she asks: Why is it grand theft auto, instead of grand auto theft, or auto grand theft? She has a reasonable story for why it’s not auto grand theft (modifiers in compound nouns, such as auto in auto theft, occur closer to the noun than other adjectives), but that still leaves auto grand theft a theoretical possibility. My first guess was that it was useful to have grand theft at the front for easier listing in law references, but the trouble with this explanation is that it’s dangerously ad hoc. That is, if it’s true, why don’t we have lots of other compounds that get lexicalized head-first this way? Thyroid cancer may appear in a medical book’s index as cancer, thyroid, people still refer to it as thyroid cancer and not cancer thyroid. (Comments along these lines from several linguabloggers appear after Harley’s post.) But despite the shakiness of this kind of explanation, I still favor it for another strangely ordered compound noun I’ve seen…

In the meat section at the grocery store, I see packages of split chicken breasts, labeled

Chicken Split Breasts

That sounds so klunky it brings me up short every time. Even a little kid would know to put the adjective split first, leaving the compound chicken breasts intact. Chicken split breasts sounds like breasts that have been split by a chicken (or chickens). Chicken split breasts causes one to wonder what kind of thing a “chicken split” might be. Would it be anything like a banana split? I don’t think I’d want to eat a chicken split. And where would the breasts on a chicken split or banana split be located? Would they be the three scoops of ice cream? And wouldn’t that be really strange, referring to something that comes in threes as a breast?

After those thoughts have run their course, I just figure that the packagers didn’t like having the word split breaking up the chicken-first pattern on the rest of the shelf: chicken thighs, chicken drumsticks, chicken wings, split chicken breasts. Swap split and chicken and conformity is achieved.

But what about pick of the chick?

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5 Responses to “Make Like a Chicken and Split”

  1. Anonymous said

    I’ve no idea about the chicken split breasts, never having noticed that construction. As for ‘auto grand theft’, there should probably be a hyphen for this to work, but seeing that phrase would make me think a car had stolen itself.

    Jason B.

  2. That’s an interesting question about grand theft auto. My friend’s second language is English and she has some similar problems. Sometimes she refers to wallpaper as paper wall and a campfire as a fire camp.

  3. Anonymous said

    Perhaps “auto” is put at the end to avoid the “self” or “automatic” meaning of the prefix auto. Auto kidnapped could mean that a person kidnapped themselves which I suppose is possible if you have multiple and incompatible personalities. Auto grand theft might mean the same thing–that you stole more than $500 from yourself. This is NOT a victimless crime!!

  4. hh said

    Interesting take — I hadn’t thought of that alternative interpretaiton of ‘auto’! And that ‘chicken split breast’ example is just too, too weird. Cool…

  5. Anonymous said

    Re. “chicken split breast”, I am reminded of the time I was at the deli counter and the woman in front of me asked for “a half a shaved domestic”, which apparently meant “a half pound of thinly sliced domestic ham.”

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