Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Conspiratorially Yours

Posted by Neal on July 18, 2004

Eugene Volokh has kindly invited me back for another week of guest-blogging at The Volokh Conspiracy. I’ll be posting there until Sunday the 25th, so please drop by. Be sure to check out the postings of another guest-blogger there, Cathy Seipp, who has some interesting, and in one case very politically incorrect, observations.


15 Responses to “Conspiratorially Yours”

  1. Anonymous said

    I’ve read your posts at the VC (both this time and last time you visited) and find them very interesting. In that spirit, I’d like to ask you a question that has perplexed me for quite a while.

    Imagine a scenario where you looked out a window and saw the sun shining, the flowers blooming, and not a cloud in the sky. You go outside expecting (quite naturally) it to be warm. However, you discover once you step out the door that it is, in fact, quite chilly out. I’ve heard some people describe this as a case where “it is deceptively warm” and others describe it as “deceptively cold.” Which one is correct? Does the answer change if one says “it looks deceptively warm out” or “it looks deceptively cold out”?

  2. Neal said

    I just can’t answer your question about ‘deceptively’; I keep going back and forth. Geoff Nunberg did a Fresh Air piece on this topic, which you can find here:

  3. Anonymous said

    I think both ways of putting it are wrong. What is deceptive is the way it looks outdoors, not the way it feels. “Looks can be deceiving.” So someone should say it’s deceptively sunny or deceptively warm-looking outside. And of course he wouldn’t say deceptively overcast or cold-looking unless it turned out to be unexpectedly warm.

  4. Anonymous said

    RE: “You’re not the boss of me!” vs. “You’re not my boss!”, you said (, “For the past few years, though, I’ve been hearing the first phrasing much more than the second one, and I don’t know why.”

    The song you refer to later in your post (“Boss of Me” by They Might Be Giants) is the theme song for Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle”. I would bet that the weekly airing of the song is behind the shift in usage.

  5. Anonymous said

    The Boss of Me:

    The first time I ever heard this phrase was in an episode of “King of the Hill”. A character (who was portrayed as somewhat mentally deficient) kept saying, “You’re not the boss of me! I’m the boss of you!”.

    At the time I thought that this bizzare construction was supposed to illustrate the character’s low intelligence. It never even crossed my mind that this expression might be more widespread.

    The next time I heard it was in the theme song to “Malcolm in the Middle” (mentioned in a comment above), at which time I realized that this must just be an expression I wasn’t familiar with.

    Since then, I’ve heard it used enough times that it now sounds perfectly normal to me.

  6. Anonymous said

    I’ve assumed that “You’re not the boss of me” is supposed to reflect the syntax of a small child. The content, of course, reflects the typical pre-occupations of a two- or three-year-old.


    Chris Burd
    cbyrd-att-catchword-dott-ca (note typos)

  7. RE: the boss of.
    I’m not an expert on this, but “the boss of” phrasing, whether or not it is correct, tries to indicate a function. Similar would be “the King of England,” “the Court Composer of Vienna,” or “the Junior Senator of New York.”

  8. Anonymous said

    An old “Zork” computer game had a dictator character whose main tag line was, “Who is the boss of you? Me! I am the boss of you!”

  9. Anonymous said

    The _Zork_ sighting is interesting.

    I was not used to seeing the locution in common use until the TMBG song from Malcolm in the Middle. Thus, I was surprised that when the google search result came back stuffed with it, you proceeded to subtract out those results. I would have figured it was a major contributor to modern use of the phrase. Although not, as noted, the origin.

    I also agree with your implication that you don’t say “my boss” if you’re uncomfortable with the implication of possession, control, or ownership. This phrase means “the boss over me” or “…pertaining to me” rather than “… the one I’ve got.” And, as others note, it’s particularly apt in a childish voice, particularly in the negative. It’s hard not to imagine it being said with a petulant tone and a stamped foot, and impossible to believe it’s ever been said in the White House. But not in the Capitol.

  10. Anonymous said

    In reading your post on Broom Hilda and non-onomatopoeia in comic strips, it occured to me that you would very much enjoy Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. It analyzes this kind of thing in academic depth while still being very entertaining. The book itself is in comic book form, which is nifty as well as fitting.

    Ron Moses

  11. Anonymous said

    I just read your post about “Boss of me” at

    The They Might Be Giants song you found is the theme song for Malcolm in the Middle, a very popular TV show among all age groups. I am not surprised to learn that people are using the song’s grammar. That’s how it got disseminated. (It’s a good show, too).

  12. Anonymous said

    Excellent series of posts over at Volokh.

    A couple of thoughts/questions:

    1. Attributive adjective phrases placed before the noun seem intuitively ungrammatical but, as in both of your examples, can be poetic.

    2. How helpful are hyphens at signalling that an attributive phrase is indeed a single semantic unit? Do they only work with adverbial phrases? Ex. “I bought a previously-owned car.”

    3. Is “too X of” regional? If so, where? The only place I recall hearing it is in the South, but I don’t recall how common it was or if it correlated to education, income, etc. I don’t think I ever hear it in the NY-NJ area.

    4. Finally, and totally off-topic, I have heard a large number of educated, affluent Midwesterners end sentences with a superfluous preposition (i.e., placing it in the proper order would not render the sentence grammatical). “Where did you park the car at?” What do you make of this?

    Best regards,

  13. Anonymous said

    Multi-word attributive adjectives can work if you hyphenate them: “I know a jealous-of-everyone guy”, “three ready-to-get-out-of-here kids are waiting…”

  14. crsplace said

    hi ,At the time I thought that this bizzare construction was supposed to illustrate the character’s low intelligence. It never even crossed my mind that this expression might be more widespread.

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