Vegan diners and gay opponents

Into the world of composite expressions, in particular N + N compounds and Adj + N phrases: vegan diner in today’s Bizarro, gay opponents in recent news stories. The first turns out to be pretty straightforward, but the second is more complex. The Bizarro:

Vegan Diner. From NOAD2:

vegan noun   a person who does not eat or use animal products: I’m a strict vegan | [as modifier]: a vegan diet. ORIGIN 1940s: from vegetarian + –an.

So vegan diner is pretty straightforwardly ‘diner for vegans’, and the humor in the cartoon has a source other than in the composite vegan diner; in fact, it comes from an ambiguity in the verb serve. (In a moment I’ll come back to the status of vegan in a vegan diet in the NOAD entry. But first, serve.)

From the subentries for serve in NOAD2, two are relevant here:

provide (an area or group of people) with a product or service: a telecommunications company that serves southern New England.

present (someone) with food or drink: I’ll serve you with coffee and cake | [with two objs.] : Peter served them generous portions of soup.

A vegan diner doesn’t serve meat, in the second sense of serve. But the waitress refuses to serve animals or birds as customers — the first sense of serve. Of course not: diners don;t serve creatures as customers.

Digression: vegan diet. The NOAD entry for vegan illustrates a significant uncertainty in part-of-speech classification. NOAD treats vegan as always a noun, but a noun that can be used as a modifier; this is the treatment NOAD gives to the first elements of what are usually described as N + N compounds.

In contrast, the OED (OED3 March 2012) classifies some occurrences of vegan as adjectives (the suffix –an forms both nouns and adjectives), with the meaning ‘of or relating to vegans or veganism; based on the principles of vegans’, and its examples of adjective uses include both vegan cooking and vegan diet:

1973   Listener 8 Feb. 178/1  The good ecological life; no car, vegan cooking, and a mangle technology in a tumbledown cottage.

1984   Listener 9 Aug. 17/2   The facts that CIWF is able to marshal must drive many who read its literature to a vegan diet.

On this account, the vegan of vegan diet not only functions as a modifier (which is the central syntactic function of adjectives), but actually is an adjective. Unfortunately, the N vs. Adj category distinction is hard to test for in composites: yes, a very vegan diet (with the degree modifier very) strikes me as somewhat marginal (which would seem to indicate that vegan here is N rather than Adj), but then that could follow from the specific semantics of vegan (not all Adjs are comfortable with degree modification, after all.)

Gay opponents. Adj vs. N again. I’ll start by pointing out that there are certainly examples of gay opponents ‘opponents who are gay’, with gay as Adj:

Gay opponents of Jerry Falwell send condolences [on his death] (link)

A conservative radio host and Fox contributor said on Thursday morning that gay opponents of Indiana’s “religious freedom” law were “a wolf pack” that reminded her of “fascists.” (link)

On the other hand, this example is clearly different:

[Miami Herald] Leonard Pitts Jr.: Gay opponents have lost the argument (link)

in that it’s about opponents of gay people, specifically gay people who object to “religious freedom” bills. This is a N + N compound with the N gay: ‘opponents of gays’.

This is somewhat clearer in other formulations:

[Detroit News] Gay marriage opponents ask High Court to honor voters (link)

though the reading ‘marriage opponents who are gay’, though unlikely, is still possible.

In still other cases, the interpretation is entirely clear. Here’s a 8/14/14 comment on Towleroad’s Facebook page in response to the story “Petition to Repeal Houston’s LGBT Non-discrimination Ordinance Fails”:

good news, but anti-gay opponents of the ordinance are still promising a legal fight

Here, the anti- clarifies the sense.

In any case, gay opponents can be either Adj + N ‘opponents who are gay’ or N + N ‘opponents of gays’. Composites provide very compact expressions — they have the great virtue of brevity — but at the same time they are typically consistent with quite a range of interpretations.

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