Not X but Y?

Two pieces of mail to AZBlog, both telling me that I’d said some expression E was an X but that it was really a Y instead. I stand by my original claims, while adding that E is in fact both an X and a Y, though in two different senses:

conjunctive: E is an X and E is a Y, and those two claims are not incompatible;

disjunctive: what we’re calling E is in fact two different expressions, E1 and E2 (that is, E = E1 ∨ E2), which happen to be phonologically identical; E is “sometimes an X and sometimes a Y”, in that E1 is an X and E2 is a Y

The first case has to do with the expression Latkepalooza: portmanteau (as I claimed) or neologism? And the second with expressions like bi, homo, and hetero: common nouns (as I claimed) or prefixes?

In the the first I’d described Latkepalooza as a portmanteau of latke and lollapalooza, meaning that it was originally a deliberate combination of these two expressions. My correspondent was unfamiliar with portmanteau as a technical term, and (thinking that it was a cute invention of mine) suggested that I should have referred to Latkepalooza as a neologism instead, giving some credit to the devisers of the name. I replied that like (deliberate) portmanteaus in general, the expression was a neologism, at least in origin, as well as a portmanteau, so there was no question of choosing one label as the “right” one. Amicable resolution followed.

The second case is stickier, because my correspondent (who offered these remarks as part of a long comment on my “Sexual clippings” posting, about ace referring to asexuals) chose to write in a patronizing tone that treated me as a naif who didn’t know what he was talking about, so I was naturally hostile to her extended explications of clipping and other topics, which I saw as a stunning demonstration of teaching your grandfather to suck eggs. But in there was the crucial terminological claim, plus some factual claims, all of which were way off base. In what follows, I protect my correspondent’s identity, edit out her citation of her credentials to comment on the issues, and also silently correct the typos and spelling errors in her comment, which goes:

I found your linguistic analysis of the use of “Ace” to denote persons of asexual orientation very interesting, particularly as you compared its usage to other “clippings” from adjectives that denote other sexual orientations… I would like to add my analysis of the new term.
“Ace” is a name for a group of people, chosen by members of that group. None of the terms “homo,” or “hetero,” or “bi-” are names, they are prefixes [I view this as an allowable comma splice, so I’m leaving it in]. The only one of the three that is acceptable as a description of a type of orientation is “bi-” as no one calls a gay man or lesbian woman a “homo” anymore, nor does anyone ever called a straight person a “hetero.” [Here she commits a syntactic blend, and I can’t tell whether she intended nor does anyone ever call a straight person… or nor has anyone ever called a straight person…, or possibly both, so I’ve left the poor unhappy clause as it stands.]

The core of the problem is my correspondent’s claim that homo, hetero, and bi aren’t names (that is, nouns), but merely prefixes, as if the two categorizations were incompatible. But in fact there are prefixes homo-, hetero-, and bi- (as in homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual) and also nouns homo, hetero, and bi (complete with plurals in -s) that originated historically as clippings. The nouns happen to be phonologically identical to the prefixes (and are of course historically related to them), but the two things have a quite different status in the language now.

Then there are my correspondent’s claims about current usage, derived by introspection into her usage and the occurrences she can easily recall from her experience. So she falls into a classic error, taking her easily recalled experience to be an account of actual usage. In fact, a certain amount of googling will pull up plenty of occurrences of the nouns homo and hetero as well as bi — a rich collection of data, in fact, showing all sorts of creative uses of the resources of the language. There is, in fact, something of a movement to revive the noun homo, now as a badge of defiant pride rather than a slur, and to use hetero slyly.


One Response to “Not X but Y?”

  1. Bisexuality: Thinking in Opposites | Consider the Tea Cosy Says:

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