Reanalysis and reinterpretation

Two items this morning in which lexical items are understood in new ways: look down reanalyzed as V + Prt rather than V + P; and circadian in circadian rhythm understood as an ethnonym, denoting some group of people, the Circadians.

look down. On ADS-L yesterday, Herb Stahlke reported Andrew Sullivan (on The Daily Dish) quoting someone as having written:

People fight and die and protest for rights such as a jury trial. Yet many look their noses down at the right as if it were a used Kleenex.

Stahlke had heard look down used as V + Prt (and therefore eligible for Particle Shift, also known as Particle Movement) rather than V + P before, though he noted that

“Look their noses down” gets about 12k raw googits while “look down their noses” gets about 5.5 million.

Why should look down be reanalyzed this way?

The sets of prepositions (P) and particles (Prt) overlap substantially in membership and tend to share semantics, so that they are often treated (as in CGEL, building on a tradition going back at least to Joseph Emonds’s work in the 1970s and 1980s) as subtypes of a single syntactic category — with P as the transitive subcategory (taking NP objects) and Prt as the intransitive subcategory — which CGEL (confusingly, to my mind) refers to as preposition (P); I’d prefer a fresh label for this larger category, say ∏ (uppercase pi).

So: the down of stare down is a ∏ that can be either a P or a Prt: P in the most easily available interpretation of

they stared down the telescope ‘they used the telescope to stare at something’ (with the constituent structure stared + down the telescope)

but Prt in the most easily available interpretation of

they stared down their enemies ‘they bested their enemies by staring at them’ (with the constituent structure stared down + the telescope)

which then has a Particle Shift variant:

they stared their enemies down


*they stared the telescope down ‘they used a telescope to stare at something’

And in standard English, look down has the ∏ down usable only as P, not as Prt. But given that down is in general usable as P or as Prt (as with stare), and that look and stare are similar in meaning, it’s tempting to see look down in look down their noses as a possible V + Prt combination. Hence, look their noses down, with Particle Shift.

Circadian rhythms. Here we start with today’s Zits:

Pierce has understood the circadian of circadian rhythm as referring to some group of people (or beings) known as Circadians — like Acadians. Well, circadian is semantically opaque to most people, who can’t, after all, be expected to know the etymology of the word. The etymology is, in fact, unexpected:

A circadian rhythm is a biological processes which displays an endogenous [self-sustained], entrainable [adjustable to the local environment]oscillation of about 24 hours. These rhythms are driven by (or composed of) a circadian clock, and rhythms have been widely observed in plants, animals, fungi and cyanobacteria. The term circadian comes from the Latin circa, meaning “around” (or “approximately”), and diem or dies [well, the stem die-], meaning “day”. (Wikipedia link)

There are lots of reinterpretations of cicadian out there. In particular, circadian rhythm is often taken to have rhythm ‘musical rhythm’ in it, with Circadian taken, playfully, to refer to some sort of group. There are musical groups called Circadian Eyes and The Circadian Kingdom, and there’s a Protoculture album Circadians — this is music in the psytrance genre, with rhythms a major feature of the music (Circadians on YouTube here).

And, impressively, there’s the group The Circadians, whose website plays elaborately with the ethnonym interpretation of the name:

The Circadians’ beautiful procreative cycle is unlike that of any other creature in the universe. It begins with two adult Circadians releasing their eggs onto shiny mirror-like discs that we call “CDs.” These CDs are then transported to the recipient’s domicile. Here, the recipient disassembles the package and inserts the CD into an electronic device know as a “CD player.” A strange and wondrous thing then occurs as The Circadian’s eggs are transmuted into sine wave (sound) and projected into the ear of the recipient. It is there that they are fertilized and a brand new circadian is born. The recipient, now turned host suddenly begins to long for the company of other Circadians. When he or she is finally united with a fellow member of the species, the reproductive cycle begins anew.

See their album Avocado Igloo and two YouTube videos from Tiny Seeds: “Drifting” here and “Paragraph” here.

[Bonus material: “Paragraph” is in fact about writing. The lyrics:

Could you write a simple paragraph
‘Bout a monkey who was lost in the woods,
Survived on stolen goods till she died?

Ransom note
Could you draft a simple ransom note?
Would you pass it to your friends in the back
And read it to the class when you’re done?

Would you like to write a book?
Would you like to write a book?

Paragraph, Paragraph, ahh

What does it say?
Can you recite us your paragraph?

Start it with a simple paragraph
Keep on writing till it hurts in your wrist,
You’re dead in the head and you’re gone…]

2 Responses to “Reanalysis and reinterpretation”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    On traffic between P and Prt, two postings by Neal Whitman:

  2. Podcast Linkfest « Literal-Minded Says:

    […] a post from Arnold Zwicky about people who “look their nose down” (not “look down their nose”) at things they disapprove of. It reminded me of my own […]

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