Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Portmanteau words’ Category

Frings and Other Things

Posted by Neal on August 16, 2004

Glen has taken up my challenge to find another word that behaves semantically like frings. What are the stakes here? If he succeeds, he will have robbed my indignation of its righteousness. That is, if my complaint is that this word’s behavior is totally unnatural, unlike anything else in the language, then Glen’s finding another word is enough to establish at least a little bit of a pattern, and trash my argument. If I still don’t love frings, it’s just due to my own cussedness. Therefore, it behooves me to spotlight the differences between his examples and my frings. Luckily, the differences are there.

First, I’ll address the easy ones. Glen writes:

Politics. Most people use it with a singular verb, but a respectable minority use it with a plural verb…. One eminent example: Winston Churchill said, “Politics are almost as exciting as war and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics, many times.”

Like frings, words such as politics, economics, and linguistics have what looks like a plural ending, and are often used with plural verbs. (In other words, they are or can be morphologically plural.) And like frings, these words have no meaning in the singular: *politic, *economic, and *linguistic do not exist as nouns (only as adjectives). But unlike frings, these nouns are not semantically plural: They are abstract nouns referring to fields of study. By contrast, when someone talks about frings, they are definitely talking about more than one object, just as they are when they talk about cars or telephones. In addition to abstract nouns like politics, there are the concrete nouns scissors, pants, and shorts. These, too, are morphologically plural, and can be semantically singular: These pants can refer to one object. They can also be semantically plural, as in “All my pants are torn,” but they’re still different from frings in that frings has to be semantically plural.

Now how about this example, which Glen has the audacity to throw back in my face?

Neal, back on Agoraphilia, you made a post about troops. It’s a plural noun that (at least for you and many other English speakers) has no singular, because you can’t have “a troop of one.”

This one is closer. It’s morphologically plural, has no singular meaning (for many speakers, under the non-collective meaning), and furthermore is semantically plural: troops is definitely referring to some number of soldiers higher than one. Glen goes on:

Some other possible examples: Rapids, as in the fast section of a river. For the definition of rapid that relates to rivers, my dictionary says the word is “usually pl.” You don’t often hear about someone who “shot a rapid.” Falls, as in a cascade of water. For the definition of fall that relates to water cascades, my dictionary says the word is “usually pl., often with sing. v.” You don’t often hear someone say, “Look at the beautiful fall.”

Again, he’s chosen telling examples: morphologically plural, no meaning for the singular, and semantically plural. Here is what I think the crucial difference between these words and frings is: Even though we don’t use the singular troop, rapid, and fall, there is an obvious meaning for these forms if they were to be used: one soldier, one hump of water passing over a rock, one waterfall. (In fact, I even found an attestation of one troop.) But what, as I have pointedly asked Glen and Dad, what would one fring be?

Now there is one answer they could give, one that’s so simple I was surprised I never thought of it in all these years: A fring is either a french fry or an onion ring. Wasn’t that easy? Any member of the union of the set of french fries and the set of onion rings is a fring! Just like you could define mammal as “squirrel or bat or horse or elephant or human or gorilla….” But wait. For fring, the only definition that you can use to link these two different items is the disjunctive one. Fries and onion rings by themselves are not a natural class. You could put them in the larger category of “appetizers,” or “fried side items,” but then you’d have to let in stuffed mushrooms, fried okra, and potato skins, too. Mammals, on the other hand, are a natural class, and can be defined without disjunctions, like this: “vertebrate animals that have fur and a four-chambered heart, nurse their young, and are endothermic”. (Thanks to David Dowty for some thought-provoking discussion on these disjunctive definitions.)

At this point, frings still behaves differently semantically from the other examples, specifically in having an irreducibly disjunctive definition. The only problem now is what to do with some other pesky long-existing words with irreducibly disjunctive definitions: brother/sister-in-law, aunt, uncle. All I can offer here is that whereas separate terms exist for the two components of frings (i.e., fries and onion rings), such terms don’t exist for the two different kinds of brother- or sister-in-law, or aunts, or uncles. A member of the set of frings will be a fry or a ring, but a member from the set of uncles will be an uncle or … an uncle.

I think I dodged that last bullet. But too bad, when I was writing my post about bell peppers the other night, I suddenly realized that I had found another example of a frings-type word: morphologically and semantically plural, no meaning for the singular. I was thinking about the way a grocery store here sells packages containing one red, one yellow, and one green bell pepper, and labels them “Stoplight Peppers.” Pick out any pepper from one of these packages, and it won’t be a stoplight pepper. It’ll be a red, yellow, or green pepper. And I can’t just define stoplight pepper as bell pepper, since that definition would include orange and purple bell peppers, too. So why did I chuckle at this term, while I still grit my teeth at frings? I guess the answer must just be that I’ve mellowed out between the time I first heard fring and when I ran across stoplight peppers.

Curses, Glen wins! But let the record show: It wasn’t his arguments that closed the case–it was my example, mine! I could have kept it quiet, but no, that would have been incompatible with my deep respect for good sportsmanship and unflinching intellectual honesty.

Posted in Lexical semantics, Portmanteau words, The Fring Cycle | 5 Comments »

Frings Is Tasty!

Posted by Neal on August 12, 2004

Aha! I’ve now figured out what I should have said during my discussion of frings with Glen and Dad some eight years ago. All that stuff about telic and atelic verbs was tangential–I should have stuck to nouns, and said something like this…

OK, Glen, I’m not against having a word that refers to a heterogeneous mixture of things. I’m happy with mass nouns like salad, succotash,1 beef stew, fruitcake, and trail mix. Even though a lone vegetable or fruit chunk qualifies doesn’t count as salad, I’m OK using salad to refer to a whole bowl of different kinds of vegetable or fruit pieces. But when you use a word with what is obviously a plural-noun ending (to wit, frings), you are asking me to believe that there is a meaning for the singular (fring), and there isn’t one! I’ll accept the word frings if you can convince me that it’s not really a plural count noun–that the -s on the end isn’t really the plural marker, and the word just happens to end with a [z] sound, like quiz does. You can do that by convincing me that you can say all of the following without having to stop and think about your word choice:

  1. Frings is tasty!
  2. I ate too much frings last night.
  3. Why do I eat frings? It tastes good!

Heh, heh. They’re using frings as a plural and they know it. Faced with this argument, they’ll have to concede!

Well, unless they can find some other example of a plural noun whose singular has no meaning, and cite it as a precedent. They might bring up odds and ends, and the joke about “If you only have one left, how do you know if it’s an odd or an end?” But they can’t make a case here. Even if you can never know whether one out of many odds and ends is an odd or an end, presumably it is one of the two. On the other hand, pick up one item from a plate of frings, and it’ll be either a french fry or an onion ring. It won’t be a fring.

1Thanks to both Dad and the professor for that semantics course for independently bringing up this long-suffering example.

Posted in Lexical semantics, Mass and Count Nouns, Portmanteau words, The Fring Cycle | 3 Comments »

No Such Thing as a Fring

Posted by Neal on August 7, 2004

Since beginning his occupational therapy more than a year ago, Adam has made great strides in being willing to try new foods. The range of foods that he will eat has expanded so much that we can actually take him to a restaurant every now and then without having to bring along one of his preferred foods as a failsafe. I took him to a burger place for lunch today, and one of the sides listed on the menu was “Frings.” Ah, frings. That word brings back memories. Here comes one now…

Glen: You know, Dad, I’d like to get some fries, but a basket of onion rings sure sounds good, too.
Dad: Funny you should say that, Glen. I was just thinking about getting an order of onion rings, but I could really go for some fries. I don’t want to order both, though…
Glen: Hey, I have an idea! Maybe I could order some fries, and you could order some onion rings, and we could, you know, share them!
Dad: That’s a great idea, Glen! We could put them all in one big pile between us.
Glen: Yeah, let’s do that! This is such a great idea, we ought to have a name for it. Like… like, onion fries, or…
Dad: Nah, I don’t like that name. What about… fry rings?
Glen: Or just, frings?
Dad: Hey! I like that! Frings!

Later, when the food arrived:

Glen: OK, Dad, here are the fries.
Dad: All right, I’ll just put the onion rings here… mix them up a little bit…
Glen: Mmm, frings!
Dad: Frings!

They would just keep going like this until I said something, so I did what I had to do.

Neal: Frings, huh? Can you show me a fring?
Dad: Well, Neal, look, there’s a whole pile of them right there!
Neal: OK, so pick up one.
Glen: (holding up a french fry threaded through an onion ring) OK, here’s a fring!

Overall, a typical episode of Glen and Dad’s fring-baiting. But this time, the whole business of there being a plural noun which could denote a mass of stuff, but whose singular form didn’t denote anything, was reminding me of something I’d been reading about recently. What was it?

Ah, I remembered! It was reminding me about the different classes of verbs we’d been discussing in my semantics class. One class is the atelic (“without end”) verbs, which denote actions that don’t have a definite endpoint (as opposed to telic verbs, which denote actions that do have a definite endpoint). One way of identifying these verbs is checking to see if they can be modified by an adverb showing duration, such as for two hours. Sleep is an atelic verb: I slept for two hours sounds fine. Wake up is telic: *I woke up for two hours sounds weird. You can say, “It took me two hours to wake up,” or “I kept waking up (and falling back asleep) for two hours,” but not simply, “I woke up for two hours.”

As the details came back to me, I was relaying them to Glen. There was a further distinction among atelic verbs, I told him: simple ones and complex ones. For simple atelics, such as sleep, if it is true that someone was sleeping for some interval (say from 4:00 to 6:00), then it is also true for any subinterval: from 4:10 to 5:00, from 4:30 to 4:31, from 5:55:55 to 5:55:56, etc. But for complex atelics, such as walk, this isn’t true for every possible subinterval. If someone was walking from 4:00 to 6:00, it may be true that they were walking between 4:10 to 5:00, but as you slice the intervals more and more finely, you get to a point where the action no longer qualifies as walking. It will be a foot-lifting action, or a foot-placing action, or a leg-swinging action, but those actions individually do not qualify as walking.

“So,” I concluded, “What we have is a walking event composed of lots of little subevents, none of which itself counts as walking, but which, taken together, uh…” My brilliant analogy wasn’t going in the direction I’d planned. In fact, it looked like I hadn’t had much of a plan for it at all, and now I was kind of sorry I’d brought it up. But it was too late. Glen was saying, “That’s a great example, Neal! Thanks!”


Posted in Lexical semantics, Portmanteau words, The Fring Cycle | 14 Comments »