In a joint campaign appearance yesterday with Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama used the word “embracing” as an adjective describing Mrs. Clinton’s relationship to Mrs. Obama. Now, this is an unusual––and apparently nonce––instance of a present active participle (< v. embrace) functioning as an adjective. Merriam-Webster Unabridged Online lists it as meaning “encircling, enclosing: such as a: of a leaf : having the base clasped about the supporting stem of the plant; b: comprehensive, inclusive.” It is clear that Mrs. Obama’s particular use of the word has embraced a function that is implicit in English but generally not recognized formally (e. g., in dictionaries) as part of the norm.
As Henning Andersen sets out in his far-ranging and definitive discussion of the concept of norm as applied to language, “the notion of language norms has played an important role in practical (‘applied’) linguistics since antiquity and in linguistic theorizing since the 1800s” (“Living Norms,” From Poets to Padonki: Linguistic Authority and Norm-Negotiation in Modern Russian Culture, ed. I. Lunde and M. Paulsen, Slavica Bergensia, 9 [Bergen: University of Bergen], 2009, p. 18). He goes on to distinguish between what he terms “declarative” and “deontic” norms, under which headings a further distinction is made between “explicit” and “implicit” norms. “Living norms” are then called “implicit deontic norms.”
When a speaker makes up a word that is perfectly understandable and in conformity with the morphological rules of the language, they are not contravening any norm, except perhaps the “statistical” one that is based on hitherto observed language usage. No native speaker of American English would characterize Michelle Obama’s use of embracing as a pure adjective (derived, to be sure, from the verb embrace) as ungrammatical and would moreover, if questioned, agree with the observation that her word choice was perfectly in the spirit of creative exploitation of the language’s inherent norms, alias its implicit deontic norms.
Today is the Jewish Day of Atonement, which in Hebrew is Yom Kippur (יום כיפור), with the stress on the second syllable of the second word. This is the stress that people in America have adopted ever since the so-called Yom Kippur War, which began when the Arabs launched a surprise attack in October 1973 on Israeli positions in the Israeli-occupied territories on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism.
Jews and Gentiles in America had theretofore conventionally pronounced Kippur with stress on the initial syllable, the stress in Yiddish, reflecting the Ashkenazic habit of retracting all stress in Hebrew disyllables onto the initial by comparison with the Sephardic pronunciation. For those in the know, this Yiddishized stress made the word sound the same as the English word kipper ‘a name given to the male salmon (or sea trout) during the spawning season’ (OED [“of uncertain etymology”]). The enormous publicity attending the Yom Kippur War gave pervasive currency to the Sephardic stress and all but obliterated the Ashkenazic one as far as American English was concerned, a situation lasting to this day.
American English, by contrast with British English, is prone to adopt in loan words, especially nomina propria, what is perceived to be “authentic,” hence the latter-day change in the second vowel of items such as Iraq and Iran from the traditional flat vowel to the current pervasive broad one.
Apropos of the Day of Atonement, when having nothing to atone for, one remembers Y-H-B’s father (who could read the Bible in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin) admonishing his son that the most important thing for a Jew to have is lev tov לב טוב ‘a good heart’.
The OED defines the adjective ‘indecorous’ as ‘contrary to, or wanting, decorum or propriety of behaviour; in bad taste’. This word came to mind when Y-H-B was eating breakfast at Up for Breakfast in Manchester Center, Vermont, as is his wont whenever he is in Vermont on a Sunday. Mind you, this word was unearthed from his memory in inner speech––all thought being in language––while recalling a meal in Manhattan some years ago, to which he had invited a couple from Los Angeles. They had asked whether they could bring a friend with them, and Y-H-B ended up paying for her as well as the couple because he thought at the time that it would be indecorous to ask the friend to pay for herself, once she had joined them for the meal.
Decorum is not limited to the behavior of others. In evaluating one’s own behavior, propriety as a criterion naturally obtains in all spheres, including the treatment of strangers.
The coming to prominence of the adjective as a part of speech in contemporary English is associated with the flood of items like the recent ‘food-insecure’ or the earlier ‘doctor-tested’ wherein a noun is followed by a postposed adjective to form a (hyphenated) compound word deriving from a syntactic construction with different word order, as in “insecure as to food” or “tested by doctors.”
The prevalence of this type of compound adjective with an embedded adjective can be ascribed to the general avoidance—notably, in modern advertising language—of circumlocution, defined as ‘the use of an unnecessarily large number of words to express an idea; indirect or roundabout expression’. Advertising language always puts a premium on ECONOMY OF FORM in order to achieve concision and pithiness (‘catchiness’) in the service of its aim.
The incursion of linguistic gambits originating in the jargon of advertising says much about the nature of thought and discourse in the modern world as defined by the globalization of English as the contemporary lingua franca. This innovation is (nota bene) in perfect alignment with modern usage––unique to English––involving the verbs ‘buy’ and ‘sell’ in their transferred meanings, resp. ‘accept’ and ‘advocate’, imported from economics and the exchange of goods.