Breaking up is hard to do

Yesterday’s Pearls Before Swine:

Rat is characteristically insulting; never hire Rat for a delicate task.

Then there’s the agentive noun breaker upper (or breaker-upper), with double marking: -er on both the verb, break, and the particle, up.

There’s a fair amount of literature on agentive Ns based on V + Prt combinations. These would normally be expected to have agentive -er on the head of the combination, the V: breaker-up. This is an internal agentive, parallel to internal inflection, as in tickings off, the plural of the N ticking off. The alternative is to treat the V + Prt combination as a unit and suffix the -er to the whole thing, so that it ends up attached to the Prt: break-upper. That’s an external agentive, parallel to external inflection, as in the plural ticking offs.

In fact, most people find both breaker-up and break-upper awkward, and the alternative ordering up-breaker (like bystander) no better, so they opt for a double agentive: breaker-upper (parallel to the doubly inflected tickings offs). (On internal, external, and double inflection, see this posting.)

Double agentives have been much noted; the Bounty slogan “the quicker picker-upper” is often cited. In a 1971 ad featuring Nancy Walker:

Some nice discussion in Neal Whitman’s “Picker Uppers and Putter Upper Withers” of 2010, with links to other sources.

And on breaker-upper specifically, here’s an instance from Seinfeld:

“The Andrea Doria” is the 144th episode of American television sitcom Seinfeld. This was the tenth episode for the eighth season. It aired on NBC on December 19, 1996.

… Elaine meets her blind date who gets coffee thrown in his face from another ex-girlfriend. She discovers his problem is that he is a “bad breaker-upper.” (Wikipedia link)

[And on the title of this posting:

“Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” is a song recorded by Neil Sedaka, and co-written by Sedaka and Howard Greenfield. Sedaka recorded this song twice, in 1962 and 1975, in two vastly different arrangements. (Wikipedia link)]

One Response to “Breaking up is hard to do”

  1. Reader, Writer, Arithmeticker | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] my 8/25/13 posting “Breaking up is hard to […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: