Syntax on the move

Jon Lighter on ADS-L comments on my usage:

Arnold’s unremarkable syntax from the “Chicano” thread: “the first OED2 cite, from 1947 Arizona, is somewhat disparaging in tone.”

In case some young folks don’t realize it, this journalistic use of a year-date as an adjective [well, prenominal modifier] is pretty “new” …

The usage is so natural to me that I thought nothing of it, nor did I recognize it as a relatively recent innovation or associate it with journalists.

Jon continued:

Having read more than seven zillion words of English beginning with, let’s say, Shakespeare, I assure everyone that the construction “year-date according to the Gregorian calendar + NP” did not exist before the 20th C., and if you want my two cents about it, probably didn’t appear until (I’ll go out on a limb) the late ’60s. Or even a little later.

We dinos would have said “from Arizona in 1947” or “from Arizona, 1947.” Conceivably it developed from the journalist’s obsession to save space via the saturation of the brainosphere with phrases like “The new 1957 Thunderbird!” and “The unstoppable 1961 New York Yankees!”

(I’d find “The new Thunderbird of 1957!” and, especially, “The unstoppable New York Yankees of 1961” awkward, inferior to the alternatives with year-date as modifier, though entirely acceptable. And I’m a dino.)

In a later posting, Jon suggests accountants (“the 1959 profits”) as another possible source of the usage, but economists and business writers would also be possible.

But… As in other cases, I’m wary about trusting Jon’s memory about what usages occurred (or didn’t occur) in texts and when; it could just be that Jon didn’t notice the usage until relatively recently. (My impression that this usage has been around for a long time is equally untrustworthy. The Recency Illusion and the Antiquity Illusion are both real.)

The most modest of searches (on “1908 profits”) pulls up an example from a century ago. From The Western New York Horticultural Society — Proceedings of the Fifty-Fifth Annual Meeting … (1910), pp. 135-6 (relevant nominals boldfaced):

… but with the 1908 crop of good quality apples making more net profits for the buyer than ever before known, the poor crop of 1909 came into the arena with the poorest apples imaginable, being much poorer than the 1907 crop, but the 1908 profits dazzled the buyer’s eyes so even the poor apples looked big, and he put them in storage supposing the moisture there would swell them up to two and a half inch apples.

(Note “the poor crop of 1909”, with postnominal modifier.)

Memory — even the memory of substantial scholars — just won’t do; only systematic searches will bear on the question.


2 Responses to “Syntax on the move”

  1. Jonathan Lighter Says:

    The difference is that today the usage is barely noteworthy.

    In the exx. I was thinking of, the modified is a geographical name in a prepositional phrase. Perhaps, in an absolute sense, that’s the biggest change.

    I feel confident in predicting that no one will find many examples like “from 1947 Arizona” or “This is a story of 1898 America” or “It was typical of 1939 Hollywood” or “…of 1930s Hollywood.”

    I believe that an examination of sources before, say, 1960 or ’70, would turn up few examples of this. And before ca1920? I’d be surprised if there were even one.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I don’t see any evidence that the usage was noteworthy a hundred years ago. But this is an empirical question, which could be examined by someone with easy access to better textual sources than the ones I use. (It took me about three seconds to find the example I posted, using a crude search on a crude source.)

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