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Archive for December, 2015

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.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

[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.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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