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.
The phenomenon known as “uptalk,” by which is meant the use of interrogative intonation in declarative clauses, has become thoroughly incorporated into the speech of (mostly younger) American females and some males but has not typically been noted for British English. However, on the evidence provided by the speech of a young female doctor being interviewed this morning about her research on the BBC (Dr. Michelle Beaumont, King’s College London) makes it abundantly clear that RP (the so-called “Received Pronunciation,” which is the British standard) is no longer immune to the penetration of uptalk. As in American English, this new intonation is used by females who wish to make a declarative statement while simultaneously conceding to their interlocutors that (1) the content of their assertion is subject to doubt or disproof; and (2) the interlocutor is invited to only tentatively or provisionally entertain its veracity.
Idioms in all languages are typically univocal as to form. If English has ‘kick the bucket’ with its idiomatic transferred meaning of dying, then there is no latitude for speakers to change ‘bucket’ to ‘pail’ (or any other synonym for that matter). However, when idioms first enter a language, some variation may occur, whereby one or another synonymous element is substituted for the authentic version.
This has happened in recent American English with the idiomatic phrase ‘get/wrap one’s head around’, meaning ‘understand with some difficulty’, such that speakers frequently replace ‘head’ with ‘brain’ or ‘mind’. These substitutions ought to be ruled out of court for one fundamental reason: they are the result of a misconstrual of the stylistic link between the verb and the direct object. Both ‘get’ and ‘wrap’ are words from the common (non-elevated) stratum of English vocabulary, whereas neither ‘brain’ nor ‘mind’ is. Speakers who alter the idiom by changing the stylistic level of its verbal complement are thus guilty of linguistic misprision.
Since living in Manhattan (unlike Los Angeles, to take a marked contrast) necessarily involves walking, Y-H-B often finds himself perambulating in his neighborhood and observing the pedestrian scene, including that of miscellaneous persons walking their dogs. These canines, in their turn, swivel about on their leashes and, whenever possible, engage each other through reciprocal barks, sniffing of hind quarters, and other untoward behavior. These sidewalk encounters typically cannot be obviated by human walkers, intruding willy nilly as they are wont to do on one’s consciousness as well as on one’s private space.
This morning an encounter of just this sort provoked the disinterment of a very pithy Russian proverb in Y-H-B’s brain, to wit: свои собаки грызутся, чужая не приставай, literally meaning ‘if someone else’s dogs are nipping at [squabbling/quarreling with] each other, one’s own [dog] oughtn’t pester [= mix in]’. This proverb also happens to be the title of one of the most prominent Russian dramatist A. N. Ostrovsky’s plays (1861, subtitled “Pictures of Moscow Life”). The transferred meaning of the proverb is: ‘stay clear of other people’s quarrels’. Good advice.
One consequence of living in The Age of Depravity in America is the falling away of rational thought when it comes to appraising aspects of contemporary culture (esp. popular culture and the arts, but not only). What is ubiquitously proffered by avatars of all stripes as excellent or meritorious more often than not turns out to be counterfeit but continues the life of all false coins long beyond their minting.
The word that best captures this state of affairs is the adjective ‘meretricious’, glossed as follows by the Oxford English Dictionary Online:
“Origin: A borrowing from Latin, combined with an English element.
Etymons: Latin meretrīcius + -ous suffix.
Etymology: < classical Latin meretrīcius ( < meretrīc- , meretrīx meretrix n. + -ius , suffix forming adjectives) + -ous suffix. Compare Italian †meretricioso (14th cent.).
- Of, relating to, or befitting a prostitute; having the character of a prostitute. Obs. (arch. in later use).
- Alluring by false show; showily or superficially attractive but having in reality no value or integrity.”
Noting the surprising (now obsolete and archaic) first meaning of the word, one is reminded of the axiom that true love is never for sale.
As an immigrant and the son of refugees, Y-H-B often heard the phrase “Nansen passport” uttered by his parents, who were stateless until immigrating to the United States in 1952 and were able to travel between the wars only because they held this document, a laissez-passer (from the French ‘let pass’) issued to Russian refugees by Fridtjof Nansen in 1922 in his role as High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations.
Given today’s world situation, with its high incidence of forced migration due to wars, it might be apposite to remind readers that the key to acceptance of migrants in their new countries is their command of the language of the communities they join. Nothing is as powerful a warrant of their bona fides as speech that conforms in every possible respect to the linguistic norms of their adoptive countries.
As another contemporary example supporting the veracity of the apothegm, “You are what you say,” speakers of Hispanic (Latino) extraction who are in every respect native speakers of American English often deliberately pronounce Spanish words that are part of English utterances, including their own surnames, “authentically,” i. e., using Spanish phonetics rather than English. This can regularly be heard, for instance, in the reports of two WNYC radio correspondents, Sarah Gonzalez and Cindy Rodriguez, who pronounce their forenames in conformity with American phonetic norms but not their surnames.
It is evident from this trait alone that Mmes. Gonzalez and Rodriguez are thereby bent on affirming and signaling their ethnic membership to the listening public, which will strike a non-Latino listener sensitive to phonetic distinctions between foreign and native vocabulary as both fatuous and odious.
[ADDENDUM: My fellow New Metaphysical Club member, Benjamin Udell, informs me that “I suspect that it’s a newsroom policy aimed at maximizing viewership. Peter Jennings (from Canada) on ABC Nightly News used to pronounce “Nicaragua” as if he were speaking Spanish. He did not pronounce “Quebec” or “France” French-style. The point seems to be to catch the interest of listeners who speak Spanish as their first language, hear Spanish more clearly than English, and tend to identify with reporters with Hispanic family names.” Apropos, I used to have a friend, an Englishman who spoke no Spanish, but habitually pronounced Nicaragua like Peter Jennings, which annoyed my wife and me no end.]