More annals of nouning

Although it’s hard to judge these things, my impression is that nonce nouning has become a feature of vernacular speech and writing; for some recent examples, see my discussion of Ryan North’s (of Dinosaur Comics) writing style, here, and of the nouning of horny in Scenes From at Multiverse, here.

Now, in the tv series Supernatural, one of the two main characters asks someone about recent events in town, even strange things, adding:

We’ve had a lot of experience with strange.

Immediately comprehensible, and also creative (even playful). And it can easily be varied by substituting other adjectives for strange: weird, uncanny, supernatural, unexpected, …

Not really a snowclone, since many other contexts are congenial to similar nounings:

We’ve come across strange/weird/uncanny/… before.

I’m getting tired of strange/weird/uncanny/…

Strange/weird/uncanny/… creeps me out.

So unless one of these nounings develops a specialized use (as ask has, several times), there would be no point in listing them in dictionaries. They’re available for invention at any time.

Compare this to the nouning in

The left doesn’t do intellectual, only emotional.

discussed by Ben Zimmer on Language Log a few years ago:

“I don’t do X” (where X can be a noun or adjective) is a phrasal template (aka snowclone) apparently modeled on “I don’t do windows.” The OED draft additions for do include this sense: “With adjective as complement: to (be able to) exhibit the behaviour described. Freq. in negative constructions.” Citations include “I don’t do polite,” from a 1991 Usenet post.


6 Responses to “More annals of nouning”

  1. ShadowFox Says:

    I don’t see anything particularly unusual about the use of “strange” in that particular context. It’s been perfectly common as long as I can remember and in somewhat broader contexts than “I don’t do X”. Example (made up):

    “D’you want to see strange? I’ll show you strange!” Actually, a number of adjectives would work in the same slot, and not just that strange/weird assortment you offered. For example, you can use any color there… or taste words (salty, acid, acrid, sweet, etc.)… or “sexy”, “dark”, “moody”, “sultry”, etc. You can even substitute foreign words/expressions, e.g., “lekker”.

    But is it really nouning? All of these have something in common–in particular, the appearance of “quoting” some identifying characteristic in the X position. In a sense, “strange” here has “invisible quotation marks” around it. In fact, any descriptive chunk might fit in the slot.

    More of the same: “You don’t know strange!” But how is this different from an explicit, ‘When you hear “weird”, you think “Nicholson”.’? The difference seems merely typographical, not syntactic.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      There are several sorts of examples going on here. There are certainly cases where adjectives are mentioned rather than used (and where quotation marks would be appropriate in writing, with, optionally, prosodic marking in speech), and there are even subtly different pairs:

      “Strange” upsets me. ‘Things that people call “strange” upset me’

      Strange upsets me. ‘Strange things — that is, things I judge to be strange — upset me, strangeness upsets me’.

      But the examples I gave are, it seems to me, most naturally interpreted straightforwardly, as involving use rather than mention — that is, as involving nouning.

      • ShadowFox Says:

        I checked out a few things, including more on “I did/don’t do X” and a few varieties of “stupid”. In particular “Box/bag/case/can of stupid” get quite a few raw ghits, ranging from 12600 for “can” to 119K for “box”. Of course, some of them are spurious (or, more accurately, underdetermined–as a noun sometimes follows “stupid”), but there are still quite a few different examples demonstrating that it’s quite common. So this expands on Ben Zimmer’s post a bit.

        But I also suspect there is a bit more to “I did X” and “I don’t do X” than merely nouning. Each needs some unpacking as “I don’t do” means a lot more than literally “I don’t do” and, I suspect, “X” in this case can mean more than just literally “X”. So,”I don’t do strange” would mean, more broadly, for example, “I don’t like dealing with things that are strange”. Or, in a particular context “do” can mean a variety of different things, e.g., “This book is strange. I don’t do strange.” would have “do”==”read”.

        Now, consider a bit of an extension–instead of “case/bag/box/can of stupid”, try the same thing with “strange”. The number of raw hits is lower and the underdetermined ones appear a bit more often, but, still, some are quite appropriate:

        As well as fiction, Macabre would also like to publish articles related to the paranormal, weird science and activities from the lunatic fringe. As we like to say at Macabre, it’s a big bag of strange baby.

        I want to return to my original point. In the case above, “a big bag of strange” certainly looks like it has “strange” as a noun. I could just as well have “a big bag of strange and ugly”. But what if “strange” here was just a mention, i.e., what I described above as something that may belong in quotation marks? I could just as well have ‘a big bag of “even more strange” ‘. In the latter case, it would be hard to omit the q-marks without losing cohesion. But when it’s just one word, there is no such difficulty.

        How is this different from one of the original examples, “We’ve had a lot of experience with strange.”? Why can’t it be “strange” in q-marks here? To me, they seem identical and both mean “things that are strange”, whether the “strange” label is applied by others or by the speaker.

        I think, I can see where you draw the distinction. Take a bona fide noun instead–say, “creationism”. Then compare,

        (1) We have a lot of experience with “creationism”.
        (2) We have a lot of experience with creationism.

        The first one might be offered by someone who thinks there is no such thing as “creationism”, but he has experience with things that others pass off as “creationism”. For example, it could be said by a scientist specializing in refuting creationist arguments. The second might be offered by someone who specializes in–and believes in–creationism. So he literally has a lot of experience with making creationist arguments.

        But there is “but” here–the second person would only use (2) and never (1), while the first person would have no problem using either (1) or (2). So the “mention” vs. use depends on the speaker and intent rather than the phrase or its syntax. What I see with the adjective–>noun examples above is that they are all cases of the first kind of speaker and not the second. I would need to see an example that excludes the possibility of “mention” and the example you give in the comment comes close to that. But not completely. In both cases, one could read the statements as “Strange upsets me.” Try reading it without the extra pause and it sounds strange. Now plug in any noun instead of strange and there is a marked prosodic change: “Milk upsets me”; “Money upsets me”; “Creationism upsets me”. In fact, only the middle one might work with an extra pause, if “money” is not meant literally–precisely the use vs. mention distinction.

        Maybe I’m just reading this wrong. And I have no problem with nouning of adjectives per se–I just think that it’s not a full conversion, requiring prosodic markers that are characteristic of a mention.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        To the commenter using the pseudonym “ShadowFox”, very briefly:

        (1) To say that these things are nounings is not to say that they are only nounings (Do/Don’t Do X is a snowclone, a formula with some content of its own, that can involve nounings) or that the process of nouning involves nothing but category shift (I’ve argued, again and again, that nouning is used for a variety of effects, including conveying shades of meaning).

        (2) I fail to share your intuitions about the other nounings in my original posting and many of your judgments about prosody. In particular, the original quote was produced without any special prosodic marking and didn’t strike me as involving mention. Nor did the other invented examples.

        Note that I am not denying the occurrence of mention was well as use — just denying that my examples involved mention rather than use.

  2. Erik Zyman Carrasco Says:

    Another pair of examples I’ve heard (the first paraphrased from memory):

    (1) I can deal with informal, but I won’t tolerate impolite.
    (2) Gay is just as good as straight.

    Come to think of it, there are also equative examples like Fair’s fair.

    An observation by Edwin Williams has made me think there’s something “predicative” about these adjectives. In other words, (1) seems pragmatically roughly equivalent to “…people being informal….”

    By contrast, another slangy nonce nouning I’ve heard (again paraphrased from memory)—I will cut you with my blade of awesome—seems not predicative but referential, the noun being roughly equivalent to awesomeness.

    Some slangy nonce nounings from verbs common among my friends/agemates include so much win, so much fail, and so much like (~ ‘I really like that’).

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Some of your examples have been discussed extensively in blog postings (in the inventory of postings here, to which at least 11 more have now been added).

      Certainly most (if not all) of the nounings pick up some tinges of meaning (as well as associations with some sociocultural contexts) that are not explicit in their longer “paraphrases”; some discussion in my SemFest 11 paper “Brevity plus” (handout here).

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