There are some topics I keep coming back to, often with reservations about whether I’m just piling up more and more examples of familiar types and falling into the temptation to accumulate all the instances of this type — an impossible goal. In a few cases, I’ve asked people not to send me more data (I really don’t need any more examples of the snowclone The New Y, as in Pink is the new black) or to send me cases only if they’re especially interesting: for instance, two-part back-formed verbs (latest: to recess appoint, to pleasure read, to pinpoint-strike), portmanteaus (they tend to come up in all sorts of contexts; see mocktail, here), crash blossoms (in the last week, one posting on this blog and two on Language Log), and noun pileups (last posting here a week ago).

The danger is completism, the urge to completeness or comprehensiveness.

The OED does yet have an entry for completism, but it has one (in the additions series of 1997) for completist, both N and Adj:

n.: An obsessive (and often indiscriminate) collector. [cites from 1955 on]

adj. (attrib. passing into adj.): Intent on completeness or comprehensiveness. [cites from 1968 on]

Completism is especially common in certain areas, books and music in particular, and my impression is that it affects men much more than women, and kids much more than adults. Here’s a confession, “The Completist” (6/21/08), by Matt Selman:

As I get older, it only becomes more and more clear I will never read all the books I want to read before I die. There’s just no getting around it. There’s too many books! Even my Amazon Wish List, aka my Amazon “Don’t Want To Read That Much So I Will Put You On This Pointless List” List is swelling at over 300.

This is tough for me, because I’m a reader. Maybe, even, for someone with two small kids and ridiculous career, a “big reader.” But it’s even harder for me, because… I am a completist. Once I start reading an author’s work, I need to read everything that writer has written. I can’t veer away. I need to check all that author’s books off my mental list. My knowledge of their work must be complete. (link)

As a kid, I went through all the books in various series (Freddy the Pig, Doctor Doolittle, Oz) — my grand-daughter has been working her way through series of her own (now near the end of the Garfield comics) — and once read everything by Mark Twain I could get my hands on. As a young man, I spent some time searching out all the recorded music by Mozart that I could get my hands on. Harmless obsessions. But still.

Having said this, here are two more noun pileups that have come by me in the past few days:

Bait And Switch: GOP Leaders Renege On Debt Limit Deal Defense Cuts (link)

European cold snap death toll surpasses 300 (link) [this one has one pseudo-adjective instead of a noun]

These are only of length 5, nowhere near a record, though they are mildly challenging to process because they are “left-heavy”, with the first three words making a constituent (debt limit deal, European cold snap) that then has to be interpreted with the remaining two (defense cuts, death toll). The first has an initial constituent that is itself left-heavy: [ [ debt limit ] deal ]. (The processing burden is a bit lighter in the second: [ European [ cold snap ] ].)


5 Responses to “Completism”

  1. Greg Stump Says:

    It’s interesting that you mention your childhood completist urges. Children are often particularly given to completism, and savvy marketers seem to know how to take advantage of that. (Recall the Pokemon slogan: “Gotta catch ’em all!”) For at least some people, completism is an irresistible impulse, one which is all the more mysterious because of its failure to confer any obvious survival advantage. Brains seem to like wholeness in much the same way that they like music.

  2. mollymooly Says:

    Isn’t “European” an adjective in that example?

  3. The power of collocation « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] know, I said I was trying not to post any more crash blossom headlines, but this one, from the NPR site today, […]

  4. Michael Vnuk Says:

    I’m not a completist. Well, perhaps not now. When I was about eight years old (mid-1960s), I read everything I could from my local library about Robin Hood, supplemented by watching the TV series “The Adventures of Robin Hood” starring Robert Greene. That’s not such a big deal, but I did keep a list of all the characters in Robin’s band (which I see from Wikipedia was called “the Merry Men” — amazingly, I had forgotten that fact!). I can only remember a few names today (such as Little John, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlett and Alan-a-Dale), but my list had well over 50 names. However, it was probably a pointless task, as my guess now is that many of those extra names had no basis in any legends, being only used in the books and TV shows as convenient labels.

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