Clitics on a t-shirt

Stanford alumnus Doug Ball sporting a t-shirt:

If I were a clitic,
I would lean on you.

A reference here to the song “Lean on Me” (written and released by Bill Withers in 1972; available, with lyrics, here). And to the elements known in the technical literature on morphosyntax as clitics, so-called because they “lean on” an adjacent word (Gk. κλίνειν ‘to lean’); brief Wikipedia definition:

In morphology and syntax, a clitic is a morpheme that has syntactic characteristics of a word, but depends phonologically on another word or phrase. It is pronounced like an affix, but works at the phrase level.

(more extensive discussion, with examples, in my “What is a clitic?” article, here).

Some decades ago, I had t-shirts made up for clitologist friends, with the legend


on it, an allusion to the common placement of clitic elements in second position, after the first word of a phrase or clause (well, it’s a bit more complicated than that; extensive discussion in Halpern & Zwicky, Approaching Second: Second Position Clitics and Related Phenomena, CSLI Publications, 1996).

Thanks to the similarity between clitic and clitoris, few non-linguists were willing to ask about the t-shirt.

[Lexicographic note on clitoris. OED2 has the etymology

< Greek κλειτορίς , perhaps < κλείειν to shut

(so that clitic and clitoris almost surely have nothing to do with one another etymologically). OED2 also has a definition for clitoris that is remarkable to modern eyes because it takes the penis as the standard by which the clitoris is judged:

Physiol. A homologue of the male penis, present, as a rudimentary organ, in the females of many of the higher vertebrata.

This is surely taken over from OED1 and was probably written in the late 19th century. Other, more recent, Oxford dictionaries do a better job. The 4th edition of the Shorter Oxford (1993) has:

A small erectile part of the female genitals in mammals and some other vertebrates.

and NOAD2 (2005) has:

a small sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals at the anterior end of the vulva.]

One Response to “Clitics on a t-shirt”

  1. Erinn Says:

    Oh, wow. I designed this shirt and sold it through Cafe Press. Seems like a million years ago. It’s kind of surreal to run into it here.

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