Short shot #49: noun that adjective!

Gail Collins (“My Boyfriend’s Back”, op-ed in the NYT, July 8th) wanted an abstract noun, and pressed an adjective into service:

We have been dealing with a lot of imperfect apologies recently, but this one [from Levi Johnston, ex-boyfriend of Bristol Palin, daughter of Sarah] hits a new level of unsatisfactory.

The common template — not really an idiom, short of a cliché, but in fashion in some parts — “(hit/reach) a new level of N” is what Collins went for here to convey ‘unsatisfactory to an unprecedented degree’, but then there’s no established abstract nominalization of unsatisfactory (the awkward unsatisfactoriness would be the default, and the other options, like unsatisfactority and unsatisfactoritude, are entertaining but absurd), so she went for direct conversion of the adjective to a noun, with things like “a new level of bad” around as models.

Colloquial but, to my mind, effective.

5 Responses to “Short shot #49: noun that adjective!”

  1. TC Says:

    Unsatisfaction, I think, would work, and though it, too, sounds odd, it also sounds more like a noun.

  2. Rick S Says:

    If you hadn’t focused my attention on it, I think I would probably have missed the nouning altogether. Cf. “…and this one takes unsatisfactory to a new level.” If you parse “unsatisfactory” as an unquoted mention rather than a use, it makes perfect sense to me. But then, I guess converting use to mention is implicitly nouning, isn’t it?

  3. unsatisfactoriness and unsatisfaction « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky's Blog A blog mostly about language « Short shot #49: noun that adjective! […]

  4. arnoldzwicky Says:

    I just discovered that when I typed “July 8” and followed it by a right paren, the sequence of “8”and “)” was helpfully turned into a smiley face by some piece of WordPress software, even though the sequence looked fine in both the “Visual” and the “HTML” modes for editing. I didn’t see it until I viewed the posting.

    After some time messing around with things trying to turn off this annoying translation, I just resorted to “July 8th)”.

    I didn’t intend to use a smiley face. In fact, I don’t use smiley faces at all. But even if I did, I wouldn’t have closed off a parenthetical remark with one. Bizarre.

  5. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Rick S: a nice point about mention and use. “… takes “unsatisfactory” to a new level” wouldn’t involve nouning of the usual sort.

    In general, quotation creates something with the syntax of a nominal, as does conversion of an expression to a title, as in “I’ve seen Breathless several times” and “I’m almost finished with Plays Well With Others“. But such mentions of expressions are often not set off by quotation marks, or are marked by something other than quotation marks: “her fuck-me boots”, “a decidedly Breathless moment”.

    So quotation would be another route to nouning, though most nounings are unlikely to have started life that way.

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