razor tight

Yesterday on ADS-L, Gerald Cohen noted:

Today on “Meet the Press” David Gregory spoke of the polling in Ohio, with Obama and Romney each at 49 percent. And he described it as “razor tight”.  This is a blend in regard to the margin: “extremely tight” +  “razor thin”.

Now, Cohen is a scholar of syntactic blends, notably in his 1987 book, Syntactic Blends in English Parole, a substantial compendium of real-life examples, almost all of them inadvertent and quite plausibly resulting from a conflict in language production in which two contributors compete for a slot in planning, giving a hybrid expression with the first part of one contributor and the second part of the other (We will discuss this at some detail, combining …in some detail and …at some length); any particular example will likely be very rare, and the person who produced it will usually recognize the expression as not what they intended.

In addition, given a particular blend, it’s usually easy to see, in context, two (or at least a very few) specific candidates for each of the two contributors

But razor tight isn’t like this at all. It’s a horse of a very different color.

In connection  with the current U.S. presidential race, razor tight occurs a great many times, with one news outlet picking up the expression from others, without any sense of things gone awry. And razor tight occurs with some frequency to refer to other close contests, as in:

As I blogged after Monday night’s Washington victory, this series is razor tight. Both teams are very evenly matched and game three was no exception. (link)

Finally, though it’s easy to see that if it’s a blend, one of the contributors is the idiom razor thin (conveying something like ‘as thin as a razor blade’), the other could be any number of expressions with tight as head: very / extremely / astoundingly /… tight.

So, rather than a blend of two specific expressions conveying ‘very close’ (which could then be seen as competing with one another), what we have is an extension of the metaphoric modifier razor in razor thin for use with an adjective head other than thin, conveying both a reference to some relevant property of razors and also an extreme positive position on the corresponding scale for the adjective.

For instance, as an alternative to razor tight to describe contests, we have razor close, turning on the ability of a razor to afford a close shave, to shave closely:

The presidential contest is razor close. (link)

In other examples, what’s important about razors is that they can give a fast shave:

Nouvolution’s N41 Enterprise is the top of the class software. It is razor fast and robust enough to handle any large scale global enterprise. (link)

DeSean Jackson seems to have gotten quicker from last year. The guy is razor fast and there’s no one on our team that can contain him if Vick is extending plays. (link)

Or that they can shave precisely:

[about a motorbike] Its handling would do a top surgeon justice as it is razor precise, perfectly steady and predictable at all times. (link)

[about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys] His direction is razor precise. There is no doubt that he knew exactly what he wanted (link)

Or that their blades are sharp (as in razor sharp and razor keen), with metaphorical extension to mental sharpness:

His mind is razor keen and there is steel in his resolve, no matter what his shadow belies. (link)

But the true star of The Guard will undoubtedly be writer and director Ruben Michael McDonagh. The talk throughout is razor clever, with McDonagh’s wit along with fearlessness frequently on demonstrate to as he pulls no punches during this story of two fish outside water. (link)

… exuding a midwestern charm so heady he could weaponize it, andy richter often seems to radiate sweet sidekick wholesomeness. in reality he is razor smart, icily cutting, and wonderfully, unapologetically dirty. (link)

Biden is razor smart, compassionate, broadminded . . . (link)

or to visual or auditory sharpness (“brightness”):

The sun is too hot and everything is razor bright. (Hell’s Half Acre, by Will Christopher Baer, in Google Books)

I’ve no idea about other CD versions, but the West German-made copy I have is razor bright. (link)

or sharpness in temperature: high in temperature, literally or figuratively:

There is a little waterfall in the jacuzzi but it is razor hot, and I won’t put my fingers in there again. (link)

Thread: this chick [Joan Jett] is razor hot, I mean, load blowingly so… (link)

All these examples have the noun razor used as an adverbial modifier of an adjective, with the specific understanding of razor arising from some property of razors that induces a corresponding scale for the adjective. Razors afford a tight or close shave, so razor with tight or close conveys great tightness or closeness. But we don’t find razor loose or razor stupid or razor silly or any number of other combinations we’d expect if razor could just be a positive degree adverbial like very, which is what the blend analysis would lead us to expect.

Combine that with the fact that the razor + Adj combinations that do occur are frequent and don’t strike people as errors, and the blend analysis has nothing to recommend it. On the other hand, semantic extensions of lexical items, especially via metaphors, are commonplace; razor tight looks like just another example of this familiar phenomenon.


4 Responses to “razor tight”

  1. Stan Says:

    One of my favourite expressions in P. W. Joyce’s book English as we speak it in Ireland (1910) appears in its chapter on exaggeration and redundancy:

    ‘Is this razor sharp?’ ‘Sharp!—why ‘twould shave a mouse asleep.’

    Regrettably, I have never heard it in the wild.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Ben Zimmer on Facebook on the 6th:

    Stephen Colbert had some fun with this on last night’s “Colbert Report” — he had clips of four different political reporters describing the race as “razor tight” (here).

    And in a Word Routes column, here.

  3. Jim Says:

    Could this be a barbering term? I have heard of close-cropped military haircuts being “high and tight” for many years. Maybe the barber can’t get the hair “tight” with scissors alone?

  4. Punctuation. In Political. Contexts. | Bridging the Unbridgeable Says:

    […] of my favorites include this recent one on the ‘mass-nounification of vote’ by Ben Zimmer and this one on the use of the phrase ‘razor tight’ by Arnold Zwicky – which has also been noted by Steven […]

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