Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Hards On

Posted by Neal on May 20, 2009

After washing my hands in the grocery store restroom today, I was glad to see that their electric hand dryer had a feature I really liked: It had a paper towel dispenser next to it. (Glen likes this kind of hand dryer, too.) As I pulled out paper towels, I noticed that the hand dryer was the kind that you activate by pushing a button, not the kind that starts automatically when you put your hands under it. Even so, there were no instructions on the machine starting with “1. Push button” for someone to turn into “Push butt“. But as if to show that when one door closes another one opens, the brand name on the dryer was Hands On, and someone had invested some time and energy in gouging away part of the n with a sharp object, turning Hands On into … well, let me show you:

What was I doing in the men's room with a digital camera? Well, naturally, I went home and got it and came back so I could get this picture, what did you think?

Ho ho! Very witty: Hands On is now Hard Ons! Wait, no — it’s now … Hards On?

Who refers to more than one hard on as hards on? CoCA doesn’t have any hits for hards on (and one hit for hard ons), but Google returns a few. Less than 20 (compared with 270K for hard ons), but among the hits are a few definite cases of hards on referring to more than one hard on:

  1. i have showerd with a few of my friends and ofcourse we where naked and we had hards on and some time we would wash each others packg’s and after words we would jack off for a while (link)
  2. Let me guess, your dick expo took place at at a sheep shearing. I bet you and the other “researchers” all had hards on. (link)
  3. my philosophy teacher had hards on in class and he used to move slowly against his chair, forward and reverse.. yes sorry, it’s a pervy story, not a sexy one (link)
  4. Well, we wasnt wearing very much, knicks and bras and see through blouses with short skirts, so I daresay these younger lads were getting a bit of an eyeful from time to time. It became obvious when we had the odd close dance with them because they had hards on! (link)
  5. When we got out of the water Jeff and I both had hards on and the ladies both had titty hards. (link)
  6. I didnt mess about with the male teachers though, that was perverted them caning us boys and shouldnt have been allowed, they didnt often cane the girls but im sure when they did they all had hards on, (link)

"Hard on" before reanalysis"Hard on" after reanalysisNow I’ve always figured that the noun hard on actually came about (I was going to say arose but decided not to) by way of reanalysis. I hypothesize that originally, a VP like have/get a hard on was syntactically the same as have pants on or get your freak on: The have or get took two complements, the first being the direct object a hard, and the second being the particle on. It would be diagrammed as on the left. Under reanalysis, though, hard on is taken to be a noun, pure and simple. Parsed this way, have/get takes just one complement: the direct object a hard on, as shown in the diagram on the right.

As long as hard on is used in contexts where it’s the direct object of have or get, it’ll be hard to tell which parse the speaker has in mind. Evidence of reanalysis could include the written forms hard-on or hardon, but this evidence doesn’t exist in spoken language. However, once hard on is used independently of verbs like have or get, its status is easier to call: In a phrase like gives him a hard on, hard on is acting like a noun. I don’t know of any usages of give that take a direct object and then the particle on. Likewise in this hard on won’t go away, the phrase this hard on is the subject of the sentence.

The thing about hard on as a reanalyzed noun phrase is that you would expect the plural to be hard ons, with the plural -s coming at the end just like with most other nouns. So it could be that people who say hards on haven’t reanalyzed have [a hard] [on] as have a [hard on]. If that’s the case, then we can predict that hards on will always be used as the direct object of a verb like have or get. You won’t get *their hards on were embarrassingly obvious, or *they talked about hards on. Even with have or get, these speakers wouldn’t say *the biggest hard on I ever had; they’d say the biggest hard I ever had on. I haven’t gone out and interviewed people on how they talk about erections, so I don’t have this kind of negative data. However, I notice that my Google data, scarce though it is, is consistent with these predictions: All the examples have hards on as a direct object of had.

But what about the improved sign on the hand dryer? There, it was just hards on alone. I suppose it could be an un-reanalyzed usage, since you could also have pants on all by itself, maybe as the name of a band, or as a command given to Doug or Adam when they’re dawdling over getting dressed. Maybe the sign-gouger intended hards on to be read as the exhortation Hards on!. Or maybe he was also planning on effacing the S, but had to quit suddenly when somebody else came into the bathroom.

Another possibility is that some speakers produce a hypercorrect form by analogy with mothers-in-law, sons of bitches, attorneys at law, and similar examples. Actually, why wouldn’t hards on be correct in light of these examples? Well, mother-in-law, son of a bitch, and attorney at law are all nominal phrases, consisting of a noun modified by a prepositional phrase. In putting the plural marker on the noun, you’re following the same rule as you would in pluralizing some guys I know or wipers of other people’s bottoms. With un-reanalyzed have [a hard] [on], on the other hand, the on isn’t any part of the noun phrase.

Of course, this whole story about reanalysis is just my best guess, which might not be correct. I had a similar story for the origin of shout out, with it arising (now I can use that verb) from phrases like send a shout out to my friend, where out is part of the prepositional phrase out to my friend. My evidence for that story was inconclusive, and all I ended up saying was that if the noun shout out came from a reanalysis of send [a shout] [out to someone], the reanalysis happened pretty soon after the original idiom came on the scene, since there were unmistakable cases of reanalyed shout out (if it indeed was reanalysis) just about as early as possibly un-reanalyzed examples of send a shout out. Similarly in the case of hard on: If it originated via reanalysis of phrases like have [a hard] [on], the reanalysis happened almost immediately. The OED’s first citation for hard on, from 1922, definitely has hard on as a single word:

1922 JOYCE Ulysses 527 What, boys? That give you a hardon?

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10 Responses to “Hards On”

  1. hsgudnason said

    Isn’t there an expression “to get one’s game on”? (The fact that I’m asking shows that I’m not competent to analyze its use.) Is that ever used in the plural? (“All those fall afternoons, with the coaches urging us to get our game[s?] on.”)

    Since the same people who got a charge out of turning the first hand-dryer instruction into “Push butt” also got a similar charge out of turning the next one into “Rub hands under warm air,” which seemed odd to me even as a child, I can’t imagine that they were think to hard strenuously about language.

  2. Glen said

    You neglected to mention the defacement of the universal symbol instructions, in which the “finger pushing button” symbol becomes a “finger touching vagina” symbol.

    • Neal said

      I thought it was a “finger touching anus” symbol, but I imagine there’s variation out there. But I didn’t want to get too far off topic.

  3. GPHemsley said

    Ignoring the rest of the contents of this post, I never would have interpreted those scratches in the metal as an attempt to modify the text, had you not brought it to my attention.

    I also do not recall ever seeing “Push button” or any other instructions on hand driers modified in any way.

  4. If the re-analysis hypothesis is true (that get [a hard on] lives in some people’s minds as get [a hard] [on]), wouldn’t you also be bound to see examples such as get your hard on and get some hard on, by analogy with put your pants on, put some clothes on, get your freak on?

  5. [...] Neal Whitman has discussed one such case, the plural of hard-on (or hardon or hard on), on his own blog and on ADS-L, where some discussion ensued. Hards-on seems clearly to be the [...]

  6. DensityDuck said

    I always preferred “push button / receive bacon”.

  7. LizaTraveler said

    I loved this post, and your dissection of the cunning hards on defacement. Then my grammar train came to a screeching halt:

    “In putting the plural marker on the noun, your following the same rule as you would in pluralizing some guys I know or wipers of other people’s bottoms.”

  8. John Cowan said

    I believe that hard-on began life as hard ‘un, using the obsolescent weak form of one. My father (1904-1993) used [hArd@n] once in my hearing (he wasn’t the type to talk about them much). This was later, when it came to be written down, misinterpreted and then given a spelling pronunciation, and the old etymological pronunciation was lost.

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