diabetic X

Dee Michel wrote me a little while ago with the Adj + N phrase diabetic socks, which he found entertaining: how could socks be diabetic? The short answer is that though diabetic is an adjective in this phrase, it functions semantically like a noun, in particular like the noun diabetic ‘someone suffering from diabetes’; diabetic socks are ‘socks for diabetics’. From Wikipedia:

A diabetic sock is a non-binding and non-elasticated sock which is designed so as to not constrict the foot or leg. Typically sufferers of diabetes are the most common users of this type of sock. Diabetes raises the blood sugar level, which can increase the risk of foot ulcers. Diabetic socks are made to be unrestrictive of circulation.

(I am in fact wearing diabetic socks as I write this posting.)

So diabetic here is a type of non-predicating adjective, a type known in the trade as a pseudo-adjective: an Adj in form, but interpreted by reference to a N.

In the case of diabetic, we have not one, but two, pseudo-adjectives — one evoking the noun diabetic (as above), one evoking the noun diabetes (as in diabetic coma ‘coma caused by diabetes’).

Background 1: pseudo-adjectives. From a Language Log posting of mine on 8/13/08, “Indigenous nudity”:

In general, there’s a big range of examples: a few types of recurrent relationships; many partially conventionalized examples with moderately close semantic relationships [electrical engineer, dental hypiene, Canadian border, etc.]; some conventionalized examples with distant semantic relationships (civil engineer, natal day); and other examples with distant semantic relationships that can be created on the spot (provincial candidate, diabetic handbook, and of course indigenous nudity). It’s just like noun-noun compounds [with respect to the semantic relationships involved]

Background 2: adjectives and nouns. From Michael Quinion’s affixes site on –ic:

Some examples, though principally adjectives, can also be nouns (cosmetic, lunatic, lyric); some are now primarily nouns (arithmetic, mechanic, mimic, picnic, sceptic), though a number can also act as adjectives.

Consider lunatic. From NOAD2:

adjective  mentally ill (not in technical use).

• extremely foolish, eccentric, or absurd: he would be asked to acquiesce in some lunatic scheme. [figurative use of main sense]

noun  a mentally ill person (not in technical use).

• an extremely foolish or eccentric person: this lunatic just accelerated out of the side of the road.

And then there’s the pseudo-adjective lunatic in lunatic asylum ‘asylum for lunatics’.

Back to diabetic. From NOAD2:

adjective having diabetes.

• relating to or designed to relieve diabetes: a diabetic clinic | a diabetic diet. [pseudo-adjective use, but possibly evoking either of the nouns diabetes and diabetic]

noun a person suffering from diabetes.

Here the dictionary explicitly lists pseudo-adjective uses. We then have three senses of diabetic:

(1) main sense ‘having diabetes’, as in a diabetic patient

(2) pseudo-adjective evoking diabetes, as in diabetic coma, diabetic retinopathy, diabetic nerve pain, diabetic expert

(3) pseudo-adjective evoking diabetic, as in diabetic socks, diabetic shoes, diabetic foods, diabetic meals, diabetic recipes

In some cases, as in diabetic diet, it’s not clear whether (2) (‘diet for diabetes’) or (3) (‘diet for diabetics’) is intended, and as a practical matter the distinction doesn’t seem important. Similarly for diabetic care ‘care of diabetes’ or ‘care of/for diabetics’.

[Added 1/19. From Mark Roberts, this coupon from CVS Pharmacy:

From the Eucerin site:

Eucerin Intensive Repair Extra-Enriched Foot Creme: Repair dry, rough, cracked heels and feet with a creme specifically formulated to moisturize and smooth.

Mark had no idea why he got this particular coupon, targeted to diabetics, but then the CVS coupon software fairly often makes odd guesses.]

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