Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Holidays’ Category

Black Little People

Posted by Neal on October 19, 2017

My brother Glen is a fan of Game of Thrones, and recently he came across a this blog post by Adrienne Marie Brown, where she proposes an all-black cast for GoT. However, when Glen reached the bottom of the list, he realized that one important character was missing: Tyrion Lannister. For non-Thronie readers, Tyrion Lannister is played by Peter Dinklage, who before GoT was best known to me from his scene-stealing role in Elf:

You’ll have noticed that Dinklage is a little person, which is why Glen found himself wondering (in his words), “What, you couldn’t think of any black little people… um, little black people… no, black little people actors?”

His question had run him straight into the old adjective-ordering issue. According to this table that I copied from my 2011 post on this topic…

evaluation size shape condition human propensity age color origin material attributive noun

…we would expect little black person. But it’s not what we get. To find out whether little black person/people or black little person/people was more common, I had to leave the curated corpora and venture out into the larger internet, since neither phrase appeared in either corpus–with the exception of a single sentence in the NOW corpus that contained little black person twice:

I remember friends of mine saying, “yo soy negrito, pero un negrito fino,” which literally translates to “I am a little black person, but a fine little black person.”

(As it turns out, this use of the diminutive negrito in Spanish to refer to black people is a different rabbit hole to fall into, so those who are interested can start with this article.)

Doing an ordinary Google search, the only examples I found of little black person/people were translations of negrito. But searching for black little person/people, I quickly found examples such as:

  • Cara Reedy is an actor, writer, comedian, and blogger with achondroplastic dwarfism. … Reedy explains that as an individual with dwarfism, “I have to do everything everybody else does, but better. I have to be a better writer, I have to tell better jokes. I have to do everything better because everyone already believes I can’t do it. I’m a female, black, little person. It’s a lot.” (link)
  • Before she was on Little Women: LA, [Tonya] Banks was an actress. … Banks joined the entertainment industry in 1984 as an actress and stuntwoman. …
    Banks wants to be the first black little person woman to win an Academy Award. She overcame difficult odds to become the only black little person in Hollywood. (link)
  • Have seen Black little person of both sexes here in DC – one fellow who also appears to have additional handicaps, and a woman who seems otherwise unaffected by handicaps (I hesitate to use the word “normal” since I don’t want to imply anything negative about her physical appearance). (link)
  • I was also “friends” with a black little person when I worked in a pharmacy in Macon, GA. (link)
  • … notorious pinhead who inspired Verdi’s Rigoletto; and the black little person, only thirty-four inches tall, who was very happily married to a 264-pound woman. (link)
  • The black little person in the Nexium commercial (link)
  • The Midnight Thud, a “demonic” black little person dressed in S&M gear who smokes crack and knows martial arts, dwells in the bowels of the eponymous penitentiary, forced there by unknown circumstances (link)

So where did our nice adjective-ordering chart go astray?

First, notice that the final item is “attributive noun”–in other words, the first noun in a compound noun, such as table tennis. In other words, we could shorten the list by lopping off “attributive noun” and noting that compound nouns don’t get broken up.

Second, remember that ordinary adjectives can still become part of compound nouns. This happens in well-known pairs such as black bird (which could be a crow, a raven, a grackle, a black vulture, a flamingo dipped in tar, or any other bird that happens to be black), and blackbird (which has to be one of several specific species of birds). It seems that little person/people is a compound, whereas black person/people is not–or at least, not as much of one as little person/people is. So how do we know this, other than the fact that people actually use the term black little person, but by and large avoid little black person?

First of all, there’s the stress shift. Many (maybe even most) compounds in English are stressed on their first element. So for example, we have black bird, but blackbird; green house but greenhouse. (You can hear a lot more about this “backshift” in this episode of the Lexicon Valley podcast hosted by John McWhorter.) And in the case at hand, it’s little person/people. If you say little person, I’ll assume you’re just talking about some small person.

And speaking of small, notice that you pronounce small person with the stress on the noun: small person. If you said you’d seen a small person, I wouldn’t know what you meant, even though I know the meanings of small and person. This brings us to the second property of compound words: They have idiosyncratic meanings that you don’t arrive at by putting together the meanings of the individual words. A small person is just a small person, but a little person is someone with achondroplasia or some similar disorder.

This idiosyncratic meaning also reveals itself when you try replacing person/people with another word, even if it’s a word for another kind of human being. Little men, little women, and little children are not the same as little people. The reality show Little Women mentioned above, which centers on women who are little people, gets its cleverness by playing on this expectation. Note also the phrase black little person woman in that same example: Tonya Banks said this instead of the seemingly more concise black little woman. Furthermore, even if a little person is an actor, an engineer, or an asshole, calling them a little actor, little engineer, or little asshole doesn’t convey that meaning.

A third piece of evidence is the one-replacement test. Noun phrases like white cats and black ones are fine, indicating that white cats is a phrase instead of a compound. But if you try to do this with cat people and dog people, you get the ungrammatical *cat people and dog ones, which indicates that cat person and dog person are compounds. In our case, cat people and little ones won’t fly. It’s grammatical, but it doesn’t mean people who love cats and people with achondroplasia; it means people who love cats, and people who are children. Even big people and little ones doesn’t work: little is now just an antonym to big, with its ordinary meaning.

Here’s a quick comparison to see how black person/people fares with these tests:

  1. Stress shift: black person and black person have the same meaning and are both acceptable depending on context. Indication: Phrasal
  2. Idiosyncratic meaning: black person/people need not actually be the color black, so there is some idiosyncratic meaning here. Indication: Compound
  3. Suitability of other nouns: black men, black women, black children, black bakers, and black CEOs are all still black people. Indication: Phrasal
  4. One-replacement: black people and brown ones is grammatical. Indication: Phrasal

So with all these facts favoring black little person over little black person, its seeming violation of the adjective-ordering rule isn’t such a mystery after all. But getting back to the task of casting a black Game of Thrones, Glen had a more practical question: “Linguistics aside, I wonder why that website didn’t go with Tony Cox, the black little person from Bad Santa?” Why not, indeed?

So to Adrienne Marie Browne, courtesy of my brother Glen, here is the latest proposed addition to your #blackGOTcast:

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Posted in Adjective ordering, Christmas-related, Compound words, TV | 1 Comment »

Blue Christmas Cannibalism

Posted by Neal on December 19, 2013

Looking through the community newspaper, I saw an announcement of the various Christmas-related services that a local church was having. One of them caught my eye:

A tradition from Canada?

I liked the creative use of the song title “Blue Christmas” to name a service for, I assumed, people grieving for departed loved ones or maybe with serious health problems. Pretty clever name, I thought, for a service that I hadn’t heard of before but which sounded like it filled a need. Then I looked across to the facing page of the newspaper, saw another listing of Christmas services from another church, and among the services, saw listed another Blue Christmas service. So apparently this wasn’t an original naming, but a more widespread thing. On the American Dialect Society email list, Dan Goncharoff found two attestations from 1998, both from Canada, and both describing it as a service “for those grieving and in pain at Christmas.” If you’ve heard of Blue Christmas services earlier than that, let me know in the comments.

However, that’s not what I really wanted to comment on. I was more interested in the description in the newspaper:

for those whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

It’s another example of prepositional cannibalism! The larger phrase is basically for certain people. And who are those certain people? They are people such that

Christmas is a difficult time for them to celebrate in the traditional fashion

Turning that into a relative clause, we would expect

those for whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

Putting it all together, we should have

for those for whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

But the writer, I suspect, second-guessed themself and figured there must be something wrong with the lineup of for those for. In the earlier post that I linked to, I noted that the two prepositions had to be the same, but actually, that might not be true. In the widely mangled proverb

Of those to whom much is given, much is expected.

the of at the beginning is often lopped off. Why the of instead of the to? I don’t know, but I notice that in these two examples, the preposition that survives is the one that points to the beneficiary role: the person who is given much, the person the service is intended for.

They seem to have left off an S here

On an unrelated note, for a few hours after I read the announcement, I had “Blue Christmas” running through my head, and not just any version, but the version from Elvis’s Christmas Album, including the wah-wah-wah-waah ostinato that was drilled into my head through Dad’s numerous playings of the album over the years. What’s the linguistic connection? Also on that album is “Santa Bring My Baby Back,” which I first heard at age 4, when Dad had just bought the album and was playing it for us. “Listen, Neal-o, he wants Santa to bring his baby back,” he told me. At that age, I knew nothing of the lexical ambiguity of baby; I just wondered why jolly old Santa had taken away this man’s child.

Posted in Christmas songs, Christmas-related, Relative clauses | 1 Comment »

Trick or Trunk or Treat

Posted by Neal on October 29, 2013

Creative Commons-licensed image by Tojosan

Creative Commons-licensed image by Tojosan

Two years ago, I wrote about the history of the phrase trick or treat. This year, I’ve become aware of a new variant on trick-or-treating. The online version of the Philadelphia Inquirer summed up the concept in an article last week:

Trunk-or-treat — the All Hallows’ Eve version of tailgating — appears to be increasing in popularity as a new holiday tradition. Adults fill their car trunks with sweets and treats, park en masse in a designated lot, and children trick-or-treat from car to car. (link)

You can find out more about it at Wikipedia, but as you can see, we’re talking about a sanitized and controlled version of trick-or-treating — even more sanitized and controlled than having official trick-or-treating hours determined by the city council. Actually, I guess it’s silly to have that complaint, because when I was writing about trick or treat, I learned that from the very beginning, trick-or-treating was an attempt to sanitize and control an uncomfortably rowdy and anti-authoritarian holiday, and a successful attempt at that. Anyway, on to the linguistics.

I learned about this kind of event a week or two ago from the marquees of two nearby churches. At the one where Adam’s Boy Scout troop meets, the sign announced that last Friday (not Halloween, you’ll note) there would be a “Trunk or Treat”. A few miles away, the other church had a similar announcement, but this one was for a “Trick or Trunk”. So which came first? And which one is more popular now? On the one hand, trunk is phonetically more like trick, with its lax vowel in the nucleus, and the final [k]. On the other hand, trunk is semantically more like treat, as refers to the source of the candy. It’s not a perfect match, of course, but still, it’s functioning to name the alternative to the trick.

Looking into the phrases’ history, I discovered that they’re not quite as recent as I thought. A ProQuest search turned up the earliest attestation I’ve found, from October 1993 in a photo caption in the Edmonton (Alberta) Journal. The event it described was held by a Mormon church, and was called a “trunk or treat”. As for trick or trunk, the earliest hit I’ve found is from 2000, via Google: “I found out about Trick or Trunk last year….” Although this quote hints at an earlier origin, it looks like the “trunk” variant of the phrase in the Wikipedia article probably is the older one. Phonetics wins!

Even so, don’t discount trick or trunk: In a Google web search, I found 388 hits for trunk or treat, and a respectable 290 for trick or trunk. (This is pared down from the original 3 million and 400,000 respective hits that Google claimed to have, before I clicked and clicked to get to the last page of hits, and Google came clean about what it actually found.)

We’ll know that trick-or-trunk-or-treating has truly arrived when stores start selling Halloween-themed trunk liners to cover up the dirt, grime, and grease spots in a typical trunk, and pre-packaged trunk-decorating kits. I wonder…

… well, there you have it. So in the words of author Lenore Skenazy:

Trunk or treat! Trunk or treat! Let’s avoid each house and street!

Posted in Halloween, Kids' entertainment, Phonetics and phonology | 3 Comments »

Christmas Codas

Posted by Neal on December 26, 2012

During some of the Advent church services in the past month, and the Christmas Eve service earlier this week, I’ve had occasion to be reminded of a phonotactic constraint that, evidently, wasn’t so hard and fast when a lot of our classic Christmas music was written. Specifically, I’m talking about syllables that end with [vn], as in heav’n and giv’n, which come up a lot in these songs. Often they come up very close to each other in order to make a close-enough rhyme. For example, there’s this pair of lines in “O Little Town of Bethlehem”:

How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.

It also happens with [zn] in the ris’n that I ran across in another song. So to generalize, these songs allow a syllable to end with a voiced fricative (i.e. [z] or [v]) followed by an [n]. The other voiced fricatives in English are [ð] (as in thy) and [ʒ] (as in genre). As far as I know, there are no English words that end in [ʒən], so there’s no chance of finding such a word shortened to end in just [ʒn]. English words that end in [ʒən] include words like vision and fusion, but those tend to turn up in hymns so much. As for words that end in [ðən], there’s heathen, so I’d predict that if any of these songs had the word heathen in them, we could expect to see it written heath’n. But I checked, and heathen isn’t such a popular word in hymns.

As I struggle to sing heav’n and giv’n as single syllables, I have to wonder why it’s so difficult. After all, the consonant clusters [vn] and [zn] aren’t so different from other consonant clusters that form easily pronounceable syllable codas in other English words. (A syllable’s coda is the string of whatever consonants occur at its end.) Fricatives in a syllable coda can combine with certain non-nasal stops, provided the voicing is the same. Here are the admissible and inadmissible combinations of voiceless fricatives with voiceless stops:

  • *[fp]
  • [ft] lift
  • *[fk]
  • *[θp]
  • [θt] frothed (for some speakers)
  • *[θk]
  • [sp] asp
  • [st] mist
  • [sk] ask
  • *[ʃp]
  • [ʃt] mashed
  • *[ʃk]

Summing up the voiceless fricative-stop combinations, it looks like [s] can combine with any of [p], [t], or [k], but the other fricatives can only go with [t]. Now here are the admissible and inadmissible combinations of voiced fricatives and voiced stops:

  • *[vb]
  • [vd] lived
  • *[vg]
  • *[ðb]
  • [ðd] breathed
  • *[ðg]
  • *[zb]
  • [zd] raised
  • *[zg]
  • *[ʒb]
  • [ʒd] massaged
  • *[ʒg]

These are even more restricted than the voiceless combinations: Now, only three out of the four eligible fricatives ([v], [ð], and [z]) can combine with a stop, and even then only with [d]. However, the fact is that these voiced fricatives can combine with [d] to form a syllable coda. Furthermore, the only difference between [d] and [n] is that for [d], your nasal passage is blocked, whereas for [n], air is coming out through your nose. So why are [vd] and [zd] so easy for English speakers to say, while [vn] and [zn] aren’t?

One possibility that occurred to me was to blame it on the fact that [n] is a continuant. That is, because the airstream can escape through your nose, you can stretch out an [n] as long as you have breath, whereas a [d] is over in an instant. For that reason, the [n] after another consonant feels like another syllable. But that won’t work, because fricatives are continuants, too, and fricative-fricative codas are perceived as one syllable: buffs, lives, writhes, fifth.

Instead, the rule seems to be that a sonorant sound can’t come after a fricative in a syllable coda. Sonorants consist of vowels, liquids (that is, [r] and [l]), glides ([j] as in yet and [w]), and nasals, so this rule also explains why words that end in [zm] or [ðm], such as chasm or rhythm have two syllables instead of one. (I imagine that this rule has been long known, and written up in some article or textbook somewhere, but I haven’t found it. References or corrections are welcome in the comments.) Sonorants after sonorants are OK, as in kiln, barn, and film (though I understand that in some dialects, film is pronounced with two syllables: “fill-em”). For another phonotactic constraint involving codas and sonorants, see this handout for a UMass linguistics class taught by Kyle Johnson.

All that’s well and good for present-day English, but I still wonder: When did it stop being OK for English codas to end in [zn] and [vn]? Was it ever part of everyday language, or just for poetry and songs?

Posted in Christmas songs, Phonetics and phonology | 9 Comments »

The Witch Mary

Posted by Neal on November 25, 2011

Grammar Girl is running a guest script I wrote today (that is, she’s running it today; I wrote it some time ago), on difficult syntax in Christmas carols in general, and in particular in “What Child Is This?” The script was inspired by a real-life misunderstanding that Doug had seven years ago, and which I blogged about at the time. I’ve also been thinking about that song because Adam has been practicing playing it on the piano, and he sounds really good!

As I wrote in that blog post and in today’s Grammar Girl podcast, part of the difficulty is due to the perennial confusion between lie and lay (which I also wrote about in this post about the song “If I Just Lay Here”). For a while, I considered concluding the podcast with a sentence or two about how other traditional Christmas carols can serve as good models of for using lie and lay in the way that is currently considered the standard:

  • Where the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even
  • the little lord Jesus laid down his sweet head
  • the stars in the sky looked down where he lay
  • how still we see thee lie
  • …certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay

I decided against it, because I didn’t want to give the impression that the whole episode was just about lie vs. lay. But as my wife and I were thinking about other Christmas songs, she started running through “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” (which I wrote about last year). The second verse goes like this:

In Bethlehem in Israel this blessed babe was born,
And laid within a manger upon this blessed morn;
The which his mother Mary did nothing take in scorn.

This one isn’t so good for helping you remember the difference between lie and lay. Sure, you could parse it as was [born and laid], the standard way, but if you don’t already know that’s how it’s supposed to be, you could easily just parse it as [was born] and [laid], with laid used nonstandardly as an intransitive verb.

However, that wasn’t the part that grabbed my attention. Before my wife could move to the third verse, I was interrupting with, “Mary, a witch?!” Then: “Oh, which!”

Two changes in English created this misunderstanding. First is the simplification of the consonant cluster [hw] to [w] for many speakers, as highlighted in this Family Guy clip that I learned about from Language Log a few years ago.

Having the last name I do, I think I still have the [hw] cluster in my language. Sometimes when I give my name over the phone, the person on the other end will hear it as “Quitman”, because they don’t have [hw] in their speech and figure that I must have been saying [kʰw] instead of [hw]. On the other hand, other times they’ll simply not hear the [h] at all, and think my name is “Wittman”, which makes me wonder if I actually pronounce [hw] as consistently as I think I do.

The second change is the loss of the which as a relative pronoun. I never knew about it until I listened to this verse. The which is in the Oxford English Dictionary, though. It’s sure enough archaic now, but was showing up in the 1300s, as in this OED citation:

How god bigan þe law hym gyfe Þe quilk the Iuus in suld life.

Their last citation is from 1884, from Tennyson:

He holp the King to break down our castles, for the which I hate him.

There have to be kids who got all confused when they learned Jesus’s mother was a witch. Any of you know of any?

Posted in Christmas songs, Diachronic, Morphology, Phonetics and phonology, Prescriptive grammar | 9 Comments »

Trick or Treat!

Posted by Neal on October 31, 2011

In the course of writing a Visual Thesaurus column on aspects of the word Halloween, I looked into the history of trick or treat. Some of the questions I had about it were:

  • When did it become a verb, as in trick-or-treating?
  • If its origin is indeed a threat, why is the threat said first and the demand second? That is, why isn’t it Treat or trick, following the same demand-punishment template as Your money or your life or Truth or consequences?
  • What’s with the kids in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown saying “Tricks or treats”? Is that a 1950s/60s thing, or a regional thing?

In the book Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, by David J. Skal, I learned that trick-or-treating in the United States began only in the 1920s, or possibly slightly earlier, on a regional basis. Skal adds that it “became widely known and adopted as a distinct property-protection strategy during the late Depression” (54). The sugar rationing of World War II put a damper on it, but trick-or-treating really took off in the post-war years.

The earliest attestation of trick or treat in the OED is from right after the war, in a 1947 article in American Home:

The household larder needs to be well stocked on October 31, because, from dusk on, the doorbell rings, bright eyes peer through crazy-looking masks, and childish voices in ghostlike tones squeal, croak, or whisper, “Trick or Treat!”

However, Skal has the phrase eight years earlier, in a 1939 article in the same magazine. It’s not talking about trick-or-treating as we know it, but as sort of a password for a Halloween party, put on for the same purpose of allaying Halloween vandalism. Skal writes that this attestation is “apparently the first time ‘trick or treat’ is used in a mass-circulation periodical in the United States” (p. 53):

…they found our front door open and a jolly Jack o’lantern grinning from a window at them. Seeing me, they summoned nerve to speak the age-old salutation of “Trick-or-Treat!”

Skal notes that even though the article refers to Trick or treat as an “age-old” greeting, it gives no support for this claim.

Returning to the post-war years, Skal writes that the Donald Duck cartoon “Trick or Treat” in the early 1950s helped popularize trick-or-treating on a national scale.

All this agrees with the picture you get from the Google Ngram viewer:

So how soon did trick or treat become a verb? The earliest example in the OED is from 1950:

So let the kids go out tonight and have a grand time with their masquerading and trick-or-treating.

As for the order trick or treat instead of treat or trick, as far as I can tell, the trick part has always come first. I wondered if it was some kind of phonetic thing going on, like roly poly or knick knack, but it doesn’t seem to fit the patterns. Unlike ping-pong or see-saw, the phrase trick or treat doesn’t have a front vowel followed by a back vowel: [I] adn [i] are both front vowels. And the initial consonants are the same, so whatever explanation you have for hanky panky instead of *panky hanky won’t apply. I tried to think if other common words or phrases had the [I]-[i] sequence, and didn’t come up with much: snickersnee (a kind of sword) striptease, and Mister T, but that’s about it.

Tricks or treats actually antedates trick or treat, as far as I’ve been able to determine. In Google Books, I found it in a 1938 issue of The Alpha Phi Quarterly:

Yes, it is Hallowe’en — the time for “tricks or treats.” But as far as Alpha Phi life is concerned, we know it holds only treats.

In an archive of Peanuts comics, I found that Charles Schulz had his characters saying “Tricks or Treats” all through the 1950s (sometimes with the addendum “Money or eats!”), though once he introduces storylines involving Linus and the Great Pumpkin in the 1960s, you don’t see it so much. Jumping forward to 1993, though, there’s a Sunday strip with Linus and Sally in the pumpkin patch, with Snoopy making an appearance at the end. In Snoopy’s thought balloon is “Trick or Treat!”, so somewhere along the way Schulz fell into line with the rest of the country. You can see in the Ngram View above that tricks or treats peaked in the mid-1950s.

One last item for those who read this far: Trick or treat! Smell my feet! Give me something good to eat! is noted as early as 1966 in the Keystone Folklore Quarterly. As for the further extension involving the pulling down of underwear, I can only date that back to my childhood in the 1970s.

Posted in Diachronic, Halloween, Phonetics and phonology, Variation | 11 Comments »

Backformation Collection

Posted by Neal on January 2, 2011

Longtime family friends Jim and Mary paid us a visit last week to deliver some cookies and a Christmas present for Doug and Adam. Mary does a lot of crafts, particularly those involving sewing. Doug and Adam still use the hand-sewn trick-or-treat bags that she gave them almost ten years ago, and we still use the white felt Christmas tree apron she gave us at around the same time. It’s nice, with felt holly leaves and berries decorating the outer circumference, snap buttons to close the apron after you put it around the base of the tree, and a drawstring sewn into the inner circumference to allow adjustment for different trunk thicknesses. The white felt is somewhat dimmed by an accumulation of cat hairs that are effectively impossible to remove, and we have to make do with just the buttons, because cats exploring under the tree have chewed off both ends of the drawstring over last several Christmases. But we put it under the tree every year because it’s just that well made, not just because we know Mary will be coming by sometime while the tree’s still up.

Jim and Mary gave Doug and Adam each a decorative, hand-sewn bag this year, with a miniature version of the kind of drawstring that the Christmas tree apron used to have. Doug and Adam opened their bags to find a smaller drawstring bag inside. A still smaller drawstring bag was inside that one, and inside that, a gift card to a book store. Doug and Adam said thank you, and Doug went on to express appreciation for the bags, too. They would be useful, he said, because

I coin-collect, bottlecap-collect, and rock-collect.

There’s no way his rock collection would fit into any of those bags, or even all three together, but the thought was nice. And the coins or bottlecaps might just fit. We just need to make sure the cats don’t chew those little drawstrings off and us end up having to take them to the animal clinic. But if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that what caught my ear was Doug’s compound verbs coin-collect, bottlecap-collect, and rock-collect. They’re three more additions to the list of compound verbs formed via reanalysis and backformation from compound verbal nouns. To recap with just one of them: The compound noun coin-collecting (or maybe coin collection) is reanalyzed as the suffix -ing attaching to a putative verb coin-collect. Remove the suffix and you’re left with that newly formed verb.

By now, this process is old hat to regular readers (and if it’s not, it will be by the time you finish reading the other posts in the Backformation category). What especially struck me about Doug’s phrasing was that this backformation process is so strong in his grammar that not only do compound verbs like coin-collect prevail over verb phrases like collect coins, but they do so even when using the regular VP syntax would save him two repetitions of a word. He could have just said,

I collect coins, bottlecaps, and rocks.

You know what would be even more unusual than that? If the verb-compounding became so much the norm that Doug could say this:

I coin-, bottlecap-, and rock-collect.

Maybe there are even speakers out there now who can do that. If you’re reading, make yourselves known in the comments!

Posted in Backformation, Cats, Christmas-related, Compound words, The darndest things | 8 Comments »

Merry Gentlemen?

Posted by Neal on December 25, 2010

At the Christmas Eve service earlier this evening, the bulletin listed one of the songs as “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen”, and I saw by the placement of the comma that the words merry and gentlemen had been taken to be parts of a single noun phrase, merry gentlemen. Well, why wouldn’t they be parsed that way? If you don’t take merry to modify gentlemen, then where else are you going to slot it into the sentence?

In fact, I didn’t know until recently. All I knew was that somehow, for some reason, the lyrics weren’t intended to refer to merry gentlemen. But once I started to think about it, even putting together merry and gentlemen in the seemingly sensible way meant that the rest of the sentence was just God rest ye. What did that mean? Isn’t God rest his soul something you say about a dead person? “May God grant eternal rest to you merry dead guys”? (This use of rest, of course, would be a present subjunctive, but I don’t have any more to say about that.)

According to the current Wikipedia entry, rest “denotes ‘keep or make’,” so God rest ye merry would mean “may God keep or make you merry.” I had never known that rest could be used this way. The closest syntactic possibility I knew of was an intransitive use, with rest taking an adjectival complement, as in the expression rest assured. I had never heard someone use it with a direct object before that adjective complement, saying something like, “I rested him assured that we would be on time.” The closest thing the OED has to a transitive rest that takes an adjective complement after its direct object is a reflexive use. They give a citation from Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

I haue her soueraigne aid, And rest myselfe content.

However, below all the single-word definitions, the OED did provide a separate definition for the entire phrase (God) rest you merry, with fair and happy listed as archaic alternatives for merry, meaning “may God grant you peace and happiness”. Their list of citations should be enough to convince anyone that that’s what’s going on in this song. Here are a few of them:

1548 T. Cooper Bibliotheca Eliotæ (rev. ed.) , Aue, bee thou gladde: or ioyfull, as the vulgare people saie Reste you mery.
1568 U. Fulwell Like wil to Like in W. C. Hazlitt Dodsley’s Sel. Coll. Old Eng. Plays (1874) III. 342 God rest you merry both, and God be your guide.1597 Shakespeare Romeo & Juliet i. ii. 83 Rest you merrie.
1600 Shakespeare Merchant of Venice i. iii. 57 Rest you faire good signior, Your worship was the last man in our mouthes.
1663 A. Cowley Cutter of Coleman-St. ii. viii. 26 Help me into my Bed; rest you merry, Gentlemen.
1774 J. Burgoyne Maid of Oaks i. ii. 14 Rest you merry, Master Carpenter—take a draught of the ‘Squire’s liquor, and welcome, you shall swim in it, when all is over.
1823 Scott Quentin Durward I. ii. 31 ‘Rest you merry, fair master,’ said the youth.

So that’s that: merry is part of the verb phrase rest you merry, or if you wish, part of the set expression God rest you merry. Just one more little thing, though: What’s with the ye? In fact, this question comes up no matter how you parse the merry: As the direct object of transitive rest, the pronoun should be the archaic objective form you, not the archaic nominative form ye. Compare the Bible quotation “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (Another question would be why it’s rest you merry instead of rest yourself merry when God’s not involved. Perhaps just because the expression God rest you merry was well-enough established to override the yourself.)

The title isn’t always written as God rest ye merry. According to Wikipedia, the song was first published in 1833, and its lyrics are written as rest you merry in various sources from the early to mid 1800s. Their guess is that the substitution of ye “may be a modern insertion to make the carol sound more quaintly archaic.” According to Joseph Bottum, in an article from 2008 in the Weekly Standard, Christmas carol writers of the Victorian era often tried to do this:

That feeling of oldness, that power to seem traditional, remains a requirement of the music–even though the Christmas carol is essentially a Victorian invention. ….
The universal Christmas canon [the Victorians] established contained some genuinely older songs: “The First Nowell,” for instance, and the Wesleyan “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Much of what the Victorians did, however, was write new songs they tried to make sound traditional.

I recommend reading the whole article, because Bottum tackles the clanking syntax and strained rhymes of the rest of the song, including the verses you never sing.

Posted in Christmas songs, Diachronic, Syntax | 4 Comments »

See How They Bunch

Posted by Neal on December 14, 2010

On Saturday, Doug and Adam and I were sitting in the performance room of the studio where they have their piano lessons. We were there for the annual Christmas (well, “holiday,” I suppose) performance, with students playing or singing the Christmas songs they’d been practicing for the past month and a half. It was a casual event, with the families sitting at tables drinking coffee or hot chocolate that the studio owner had put out in the lobby, and kids coming up to the stage to do their piece whenever they felt like it.

As Doug and I ate Hershey’s kisses from the table’s centerpiece, one of the voice students and her teacher took the stage. They adjusted the mike, and the student began to sing, “City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style…”

Ah, “Silver Bells”, the now-classic 1950 song by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. It’s OK, I guess. It doesn’t make me gag like a few songs that should never have been written, like “Wonderful Christmastime”, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. But there’s one line that does make me wince every time I hear it. It’s in the second verse.

The student finished the first verse, and was joined by her teacher as she launched into the chorus. Not long now.

“Hey, guys, here it comes,” I murmured, as student and teacher sang, “Strings of street lights, even stop lights / Blink a bright red and green”. Actually, I like that line. It’s clever, poetically pointing out how the red-means-stop, green-means-go traffic lights fit right in with city Christmas decorations. I picture looking down a city street with a series of green traffic lights receding into the distance, turning red one by one. (Or all at once, depending on how the city engineers arrange it.)

The student continued: “Hear the snow crunch.” I braced myself. Adam grinned as he watched me. The teacher finished the line: “See the kids bunch.” Ooh! There it was!

As the singers finished the verse, singing “This is Santa’s big scene…”, Doug and Adam stifled their giggles. They know I hate that line. “See the kids bunch”? Since when is bunch a respectable intransitive verb meaning “to gather in clusters or bunches”?

Well, since at least 1873, according to the OED. Here’s their attestation:

Buffalo grass and gama grass‥show a tendency to bunch together, leaving large portions of the surface bare.

Hold on! Not so fast. I’m OK with bunch together and bunch up, especially if we’re talking about inanimate things like kinds of grass. I may not like it when my underwear bunches up, but it’s good to have a way to talk about it. What I have a problem with is plain old bunch with nothing coming after it. But it looks like that’s been around for a few years, too; the OED has this attestation from 1924:

The really big people don’t talk—and don’t bunch—they paddle their own canoes in what seem backwaters.

Furthermore, the verb is still in use. Here are a couple of more recent examples from CoCA:

Bunching is a big problem,” Scholl says, “because if they’re doing that, they’re not grazing and gaining weight.”

It seems astonishing, considering that the Kenyans run with such graceful domination in Boston and New York and everywhere on the roads, bunching and surging in packs, such elegant wolves.

All right, I guess I can’t accuse Livingston and Evans of inventing this verb for the sole purpose of making a rhyme. But I will say that to find it, they were scraping the bottom of the barrel pretty hard.

UPDATE, 12/16/2010: Corrected date of writing of song. (Thanks, Dad.)

Posted in Christmas songs, Syntax | 4 Comments »

Away to the Window I Flew, Tore, and Threw

Posted by Neal on December 23, 2009

I’ve written about “The Night Before Christmas” (the poem formerly known as “A Visit from St. Nicholas”) a couple of times before. Once it was to untangle the dense syntax of As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, when they meet with an obstacle mount to the sky, so up to the housetop his coursers they flew, with a sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas, too. The other time, it was on the nonparallel coordination (a multiple-level coordination, in fact, like the ones in my last post) He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, and away they all flew like the down of a thistle. Now I’ve noticed another nonparallel coordination in this poem, in a line that’s usually more noted for the ambiguity of throw up:

Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Christmas songs, Inversion, Kids' entertainment, Other weird coordinations | 3 Comments »