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A Grammatical Case of Euphemism (pass)

Every language has euphemisms, which are defined as “that figure of speech which consists in the substitution of a word or expression of comparatively favourable implication or less unpleasant associations, instead of the harsher or more offensive one that would more precisely designate what is intended” (Oxford English Dictionary Online). But this definition trades exclusively in terms of lexical substitution, whereas English, for instance, has at least one euphemism that is grammatical, specifically that of pass ‘to die’ instead of pass away (mainly in Black English, but now not exclusively). (Note, incidentally, that pass away is already a euphemism to begin with.)

This use of the verb pass without the postposition away can be seen as a grammatically achieved attenuation of the “harsh” or “offensive” meaning comported by the original construction with the postposition, and in that sense it fits the ontology of any euphemism by taking the sting out of the lexical unit being defanged.


Hypertrophization Continues Apace (definitive, secretive)

In many previous posts, the march of hypertrophization in contemporary English has been instanced via examples of redundancies and pleonasms of all stripes, including ones that have become conventional and accepted like advance planning. To continue in this vein, recently your Y-H-B has repeatedly heard presenters on the BBC World Service use the words definitive instead of definite and secretive instead of secret (adj.), where the suffix {-ive} is added redundantly to unaffixed counterparts whose meanings and usage are well-established in the traditional norm.

Like all discourse strategies that have become so ubiquitous in contemporary English, hypertrophization seems to answer to a felt need for overdetermination of meaning through formal redundancy, in what seems to be a (misguided) linguistic application of the principle, “The more, the merrier!”


Sound-Meaning Relations as the Engines of Linguistic Change

An earlier post, “The Supersession of Literal Meaning (incredibly, unbelievably),” provided a possible motivation for the rise of the two adverbs at the expense of the traditional emphatics very and extremely. But in view of the clear fading of the latter two under the onslaught of the longer words, length ought now to be considered as a possible driver of the change, even though the tendency toward hypertrophy that has been instanced repeatedly in earlier posts cannot be ruled out as a contributory factor.

The length of a word can enhance the word’s suitability as an emphatic because by comparison with shorter candidates like very and extremely a pentasyllable and a quadrisyllable like unbelievably and incredibly, respectively, enhance the iconic relation between sound and meaning that is the teleological end-point of all linguistic change. Here, emphasis as a meaning is abetted in the measure that the formal means of its expression promotes this iconicity, the relative length of words clearly being one such means.


The Semantic Force of Univerbation

While several previous posts have mentioned portmanteau words (otherwise known as “blends”) and their latter-day ascendancy in the digital age, the recent prominence of the word “affluenza” (a blend of the words “affluence” and “influenza”) in connection with a criminal case is a particularly apposite example that deserves being singled out in its underscoring of the semantic power of a single word over that of two (or more) with the same general meaning.

Univerbation––the contraction, typically, of two words into one––is the more general way of characterizing blends, and its power evidently derives from the simple fact that something meaningful has been converted from a phrase into a term. In the linguistic world of naming objects and concepts, the number one is always more forceful than the number two, hence a term will always be regarded as preferable to a phrase in designating anything––particularly in the context of contemporary mass media and advertising, where concision and punch are highly prized.


[ADDENDUM: As Ben Udell so astutely points out to me, “I’ve noticed univerbation happening with proper names of couples during the past decade or two, especially the following numerous times. It seems suggestive of a couple’s underlying dynamic unity, or something like that: Brangelina = Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie (movie stars), Sh’Amy = Sheldon Cooper & Amy Fowler (TV characters), Billary = Bill & Hillary Clinton.”]

Grammatical Gender and the Epicene (Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi)

Not all languages have grammatical gender (English is one such language), which means that the declension of nouns and pronouns does not depend on gender the way, for instance, it does in Latin or Russian. The typical trio of masculine, feminine, and neuter gender determines how words vary in the several grammatical cases, but there is a category, called epicene, which embraces both masculine and feminine biological sex. This means that a word like L bovis means ox, bull, and cow simultaneously, just as R sirota ‘orphan’ can be applied to both males and females while being declensionally feminine.

Speaking of Latin, Y-H-B remembers how his father used to quote a phrase in censoring someone’s impermissible behavior that is not much heard these days, viz., Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi (‘What is permissible for Jove is not permissible for an ox’). Since bovis is epicene, it does especially good service in this geflügeltes Wort by invoking an animal that can be of either gender, and by transference either a male or a female human referent.


When Only Learnèd (Recondite, Recherché) Words Will Do

Even if we adopt the translation theory of meaning, wherein every immediate object (to use Peirce’s terminology) has an interpretation in terms of another immediate object (meaning), there is one such “object” that escapes ultimate characterization: the individual human being. This latter creature in its individuality can only be captured linguistically by the use of two learnèd words and no other (in English, at any rate): (1) haecceity, defined as the status of being an individual or a particular nature; otherwise individuality, specificity, thisness; specifically that which makes something to be an ultimate reality different from any other; and (2) quiddity, defined as the essential nature or ultimate form of something; what makes something to be the type of thing that it is.

These two Latinate words cannot be supplanted by any others from the rich storehouse of native English vocabulary because only they capture what is semiotically true––and at the heart of Peirce’s apothegm (meant asexually), “Man is a sign”––quite apart from such abstract defining characteristics of human personhood as thought and consciousness. The haecceity (“thisness”) of any given human person necessarily adumbrates a concomitant quiddity (“suchness”), and the two jointly body forth a unique, unreplicable figura that underwrites all the interpretants adumbrated thereby.

Only English, with its uniquely mottled Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman history, has the capacity to use learnèd vocabulary to such precise ontological effect.


Russian Patronymics

Although Russia is the biggest country in the world and has played a prominent role in modern world history, few people have any first-hand knowledge of Russia or the Russians, let alone of the Russian language. One of the special linguistic and cultural features of the latter (which it shares with the other East Slavic languages) is the obligatory use of an individual’s father’s name plus the suffix {ov/-ič} for males and {ov/ič + -na} for females–called a patronymic (pronounced [ˌpætrəˈnɪmɪk])––as a middle name between one’s given name and surname. Every Russian person has and uses all three names. This triplet appears on all formal documents, and the first two together (i.e., the forename and patronymic) are routinely used in formal and semi-formal speech (minus the surname). In colloquial speech the patronymic can be and is used alone as a substitute for the forename.

In Russian, therefore, Y-H-B––whose father’s name was Constantine, i. e., Константин in its Russian form–– goes by Михаил Константинoвич ‘Michael son of Constantine’ with stress on the ultima in the forename and the antepenult in the patronymic.

In allegro speech routinely and a few instances regularly for all styles, the patronymic utilizes a contracted version of the father’s forename, so that, for example, Y-H-B’s daughter Abigail (‘father’s joy’ in Hebrew, as in reality) is called Авигея Михайловна ‘Abigail daughter of Michael’. The case of the name Михаил ‘Michael’ is unique as to vowel contraction because in fact the last vowel is elided before the patronymic in formal speech as well, as it is in the patronymic, so that Y-H-B’s name comes out as Михал Констиныч (note the dropping of the suffix {-ov-}), and his daughter’s as Авигея Михална.

The existence of this onomastic pattern in Russian turns out to be uniquely useful as a cultural norm in ordinary discourse because if affords an intermediate stylistic means for addressing persons with whom the use of the forename alone would be ruled out because of familiarity and that of the surname preceded by a title (like Mister or Professor) awkward because of its formality. Thus, for instance, a student can avail him/herself of the forename + patronymic in addressing a professor instead of resorting to the equivalent combination in the typical Western European formal pattern.

As it happens, a particular irony of Y-H-B’s forename and patronymic duo is the fact that Mikhaíl Konstantínovich just happens to be the name historically of a Grand Duke (Великий Князь in Russian), i. e., a member of the Russian Imperial family. You can be sure, therefore, that when he introduces himself for the first time to a Russian speaker by saying his forename and patronymic, he never misses the opportunity to add the phrase “like the Grand Duke.”


Normativity, Habit, and Willful Mistakes

Any language is a system of habits that tolerates variety (stylistic among others) while subscribing wholly to the rule of norms. We all speak our native language in such a way as to be understood by our fellows, and that means deviating from the norm sparely under rational circumstances.

This is by way of introducing the topic of what can only be called “willful mistakes.” For example, recently Y-H-B audited a series of lectures in typically fluent (but heavily accented) English by an eminent mathematician of South American provenience. For some reason, this person kept pronouncing the English word category incorrectly, with stress on the second rather than the initial syllable. Now, the same item in Spanish (categoría) has penultimate stress. Why, then, the constant mispronunciation of the English word? Even categorizing the mistake as “willful” (pardon the pun) only begs the question.

One attempt at an answer could lie in the level of awareness that we all exhibit to differing degrees of our actions, including speech. Speakers may be innocently unaware that they are exhibiting an idiosyncratic linguistic habit even when the specimen is unambiguously erroneous from the standpoint of the norm. This is true in spades when the language spoken is not native but foreign.

The question remains open.


Of Grexit, Brexit, and Other Portmanteau Words

The current vogue––especially in American media language––for blends or portmanteau words has reached what can only be called ham-mouthed (to coin a word). In today’s spam messages to my blog I even found the grotesque item consultdustry (although this one came from Thailand). To try to counteract the impression left by such ugly neologisms, I want to reprise an earlier post below (which I’ve never done before):

Moldiferate, v., intr. (Portmanteau Words)

March 9th, 2012 | Author: Michael Shapiro

A ‘portmanteau word’ (alias ‘blend’) is a word formed by blending sounds from two or more distinct words and combining their meanings, e. g., smog from smoke + fog. Apparently, the word portmanteau was first used in this meaning by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass: “Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy’.‥ You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.” The etymology (according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online) is from Middle French: French portemanteau ‘officer who carries the mantle of a person in a high position’ (1507 in Middle French), ‘case or bag for carrying clothing’ (1547), ‘clothes rack’ (1640) < porte- porte- comb. form + manteau manteau n. In the British English of Carroll’s time, a portmanteau was a suitcase. In modern French, a porte-manteau is a clothes valet, a coat-tree or similar article of furniture for hanging up jackets, hats, umbrellas, and the like.

As I sat contemplating my navel this morning, I suddenly remembered a portmanteau word created (with her nonpareil linguistic sprezzatura) by my late wife Marianne Shapiro to describe just my situation, namely moldiferate (mo[u]lder + proliferate), which is an intransitive verb meaning ‘to waste one’s time doing nothing while decomposing spiritually’. Another one of her creations in that vein is pestiferate (pestiferous + –ate), which she coined to mean ‘to cause to be pestiferous’. Neither word is in the OED, but they should be.



Paralinguistic Differences between the Sexes (“Vive la différence!”)

All languages exhibit differences between the speech of males and females, extending in differing degree across grammar, including phonetics and stylistics. In Japanese, for instance, women’s speech is markedly different from that of men, to the point that women resort to a special subset of grammatical categories when speaking (for example, the consistent use of the passive mood instead of the active that is characteristic of honorific language for both sexes).

When speaking, both men and women do other things with their bodies beside utter words: they gesticulate with their hands, raise their eyebrows, open their eye sockets beyond normal size, take sharp intakes of breath, hunch their shoulders, nod their heads up and down or side to side, etc. Among speakers of contemporary American English, the paralinguistic gap between males and females has been widening for some time: women’s speech today is accompanied by much more paralinguistic behavior than is that of men. All one need do to be convinced of this is to spend some time observing women talking––particularly to each other and without the participation of male interlocutors––preferably without their being aware of being observed.

What these various paralinguistic features mean is a difficult question to answer, although there have been numerous attempts to catalogue and analyze them in the sociolinguistic and semiotic literature (incl. whole monographs devoted to these phenomena). From the point of view of semiosis, the paralinguistic signs are iconic indexes, but it is not at all clear if there is a pattern informing the gestures that accompany speech. Some speakers clearly evince paralinguistic idiosyncrasies, i. e., movements that are peculiar either to them alone or to them as members of certain groups (like families). But overall, when it comes to American females of all ages, these movements are much more frequent, specialized, and overt in their behavior than they are in the paralinguistics of males. This is the sort of behavior that tends to confirm the cliché about women being generally more “expressive”––or even “emotional”––than men. Vive la différence!


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