Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Picker Uppers and Putter Upper Withers

Posted by Neal on March 2, 2010

Back in January, Ben Zimmer wrote an “On Language” column for the New York Times magazine on the subject of crash blossoms. Near the beginning, he said:

In their quest for concision, writers of newspaper headlines are, like Robert Browning, inveterate sweepers away of little words, and the dust they kick up can lead to some amusing ambiguities.

I’m not going to talk about those ambiguities; you can read Zimmer’s article yourself for that. (Or my post on one of the featured crash blossoms.) What caught my attention was how Zimmer formed an agentive noun out of the phrasal verb sweep away. I’ve been wondering about how phrasal verbs get turned into agentive nouns, ever since it suddenly occurred to me that something that stands out is outstanding, but is not an *outstander. Or at least, not anymore: I found this citation in the OED from 1593:

outstander OED 1593
a1593 C. MARLOWE Ovids Elegies (?1600) III, Troy had not yet bene ten yeares siege out-stander, When nimph-Neæra rapt thy lookes Scamander.

Why don’t we have outstander anymore, or other phrasal verbs that put their particle in front to form an agentive? I guess there’s bystander and onlooker, but others are hard to come by.

Zimmer’s sweeper(s) away, meanwhile, follows the pattern of passer(s) by, with the particle coming after the verb but with the -er suffix interposed. Are there other phrasal verbs that follow this pattern? I can’t think of many, and even passer(s) by seems a bit archaic.

In contrast to [Particle]+[Verb]-er and [Verb]-er+[Particle], the most productive way of making agentives out of phrasal verbs these days seems to be the [Verb]-er+[Particle]-er pattern. The canonical example of this is undoubtedly picker upper, as made famous in commercials like this one. I found an article by Don Chapman of Brigham Young University, called “Fixer-uppers and passers-by: Nominalization of verb-particle constructions“, in Studies in the History of the English Language IV (2008, edited by Susan M. Fitzmaurice and Donka Minkova), and it confirmed by gut feeling about the picker upper as compared to the bystander or passer by patterns. He also studies the [Verb]+[Particle]-er pattern, as in pick-upper. Quoting from his conclusion:

Insofar as the citations from the OED accurately represent historical stages of English, we can first note that the picker-up pattern has historically been the most common nominalization of multi-word verbs, but that its use dropped off in the twentieth century. Second, the by-stander pattern occurred fairly commonly in past stages of English, but declined steadily through the centuries. Third, the picker-upper pattern appears to be a recent innovation, probably of the twentieth century. It is hard to say much about the pick-upper pattern, since it does not occur in the OED; its exclusion could mean that the construction is recent or that it is too unconventional to have shown up in the OED citations. Insofar as the internet type counts accurately represent present-day usage, we can note that the picker-up pattern continues to be used today, but not as much as the picker-upper pattern, which is the most popular pattern. The pick-upper pattern is robust today, as it occurs as much as the picker-up pattern.

Chapman includes two appendices. One gives a century-by-century listing of the agentive phrasal verbs he found in the OED, broken down by pattern. The other is an 11-page table of phrasal verbs, showing which agentive patterns he found for them (picker-up, picker-upper, pick-upper, bystander) when he searched for them in Google.

Before I found Chapman’s article, I did some OED-checking and Google-searching myself. When I searched the Google News Archive for picker upper, the earliest example I found was this one from Nov. 30, 1913, in the Chicago Tribune:

“For every [???],” remarked Mrs. Bumpweather, “there is a busy little picker-upper.”

The next hits aren’t until the 1930s, but there’s a steady stream of them from then onwards. The most interesting one I found (through Google Books) is this appalling example from 1939:

To prevent the valuable metal from going to waste, you will want to recover as many spilled droplets as you can. A convenient aid is a little homemade device that might be called a ‘mercury picker upper‘.
(Raymond B. Wailes, “Fun with Quicksilver”,
Popular Science, Apr 1939 – v. 134, no. 4)

So this morphological issue was on my mind when my wife had me put away some items on a high shelf for her. When I’d finished, she said, “You’re my putter upper!”

Putter upper, I thought. Not put-upper, not up-putter, not putter up. Then a more interesting phrasal verb with put up occurred to me: put up with. I wondered how that one would look as an agentive.

That was what went through my head. What came out of my mouth was, “Maybe even your … putter upper wither?”

“Hey, watch it!”

No need for her to take offense. After all, it’s well known between us that we are each other’s putter upper withers.

After that, I had to do some Google searching for phrasal verbs with more than one particle, and found out that multiple –er marking is out there:

Let me just tell you at this point in the story, my husband is not exactly a dog lover. He is barely a dog-putter-upper-wither. (link)
As far as Gundam Wing goes, I, a former Relena-hater, am now a Relena-putter-upper-wither. (link)

But the pick upper pattern is also attested:

Lycra-clad, Arnie put-up-wither, lesbian gonnabe. (link)

Most surprising to me, though, was the discovery that multiple –er marking isn’t limited to verb-particle constructions. Check these out:

I wonder if the “NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal” is synonymous with “NASA Outstanding Discrepancy Maker-Go-Awayer Medal”(link)
Dad took me to the vet and got a tick go awayer. (Twitter feed for a dog)
a blemish reducer (aka pimple maker-go-awayer) (link)

I found those examples when I searched for “go awayer”, but once maker go awayer turned up, I checked for examples where the go got suffixed, too. I got one:

HeadOn topical headache maker-goer-awayer stuff (link)

Just last night, when it was time to pill Diamond, our cat who’s been peeing on the walls, Doug volunteered to fetch her while I got the pill ready. When he returned, he said he’d had to drag her out from under the bed. He was good at that, he said; he was still small enough to do it. Yep, I thought, Doug’s our cat-dragger-outer-fromer-underer, all right! After Diamond scratched Doug, got the pill stuck in her cheek and then started hyperslobbering before leaping down, spitting it out and running to the basement, I Googled “outer fromer underer”. Finally, I had a search that got no hits. But it might be out there…

The putter upper pattern is even more productive than I’d imagined. How do you form the agentive noun for phrasal verbs like pick up, put up with, make go away, drag out from under?

UPDATE, Mar. 2, 2010: Ben Zimmer writes in an email:

Nice post. Just remembered that Noncompositional blogged on this a couple of years ago. See my comment for OED first cites. This might be of interest too.

Thanks, Ben!

9 Responses to “Picker Uppers and Putter Upper Withers”

  1. The Ridger said

    I think I put -er on the verb and the last word, picker-upper, putter up wither, maker go awayer, and dragger out from underer. I *wanted* to say I just put it on the last word (make go awayer), but I don’t think I do, saying them out loud.

    One note: If you hold the cat so that its body is squared up under its head (the easiest way is to push its hindquarters into your chest – the cat on a counter or something – and curl your arm along its side and hold its chest with your hand), and then put your fingers in the corners of its mouth and pull up and back, you get a clear shot to drop the pill right down its throat. With two people this is even easier.

  2. Glen said

    First, for the definitive guide to giving cats pills, read this.

    Second, I’ve never heard ‘pill’ used as a verb before.

    Third, any comment on ‘pooper-scooper’? That’s one of the first er-er constructions I ever heard, and notably it’s not even necessary to overcome confusion or awkwardness, because ‘poop-scooper’ would do just fine. I suspect the er-er construction is done at least partially for humor value, and that might be why it doesn’t show up as much in official sources.

    • Neal said

      Thanks, Glen. Why can’t The Ridger give some useful advice like that?

      I never heard pill used as a verb, either … until I’d lived with cats for a while. The first time I heard someone talk about “pilling a cat”, I mistook pill for kill.

      I agree with what you say about pooper scooper; the first -er is there because of the irresistible pull of the rhyme created. I believe it’s also a brand name.

  3. Re: “outstanding” vs “stands out”, I think it’s worth pointing out that they differ somewhat in meaning. As I see it, you can stand out for being particularly good, particularly bad, particularly purple, or whatever, but you can only be outstanding by being particularly good. Compare:

    1. X stands out as a really bad Y.
    2. As an example of a really bad Y, X is outstanding.
    3. X is an outstandingly bad Y.

    I find 1 perfectly acceptable, 2 not acceptable, and 3 questionable.

    Given this distinction, would an outstander be something that stands out, or something that’s outstanding? (We do, of course, have the word “outlier”, which may be interesting to compare with.)

  4. […] they’ll swallow it involuntarily. (I wrote about one time that it didn’t go so well here.) With Diamond there’s the additional complication that she has become hypersensitive to when […]

  5. […] The same goes for agentive nouns. The best you can do with fart around is the graceless farter-arounder, but with circumflatulate, the easy and obvious choice is […]

  6. […] nice discussion in Neal Whitman’s “Picker Uppers and Putter Upper Withers” of 2010, with links to other […]

  7. […] with the more traditional X-er-Y style losing ground. This is confirmed by research reported at Literal-Minded by Neal Whitman, who also notes some remarkably extended complex phrases, such as […]

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