Zombie X

For some time, Mike Pope has been (gently) after me on Facebook to assemble a list of linguistic terms that are my innovations. This turns out to be a devilishly difficult enterprise, for several reasons, a prime one being something that afflicts any attempt to discover the “inventor” of an expression: as I’ve noted several times on this blog, most innovations exploit potentials in the language that are in principle available to everyone (various figures of speech, semantic extensions and specializations, patterns of word formation, and so on), so that it’s quite likely that an innovation has been made by many people on many different occasions, without anyone taking special notice or recording these events.

But sometimes one of these events is noticed, at least within a particular sociocultural community, and that’s taken to be a founding event (with an identifiable source), from which the innovation can spread within the community; the innovator is then given credit within the community.

And so to the story of metaphorical zombie.

The figure of the zombie — in popular culture, an undead creature, typically depicted as a mindless, reanimated human corpse with a hunger for human flesh (to paraphrase Wikipedia) — serves as the basis for several metaphorical developments of the word zombie: in the informal term zombie ‘a person who is or appears lifeless, apathetic, or completely unresponsive to their surroundings’; in uses that turn crucially on a zombie’s relentless refusal to finally and fully die, no matter what you might do to it (call this the undead theme); and in uses that turn crucially on a zombie’s lack of a mind (it has no thoughts, only appetites), so that it is vulnerable to being taken over and externally controlled (call this the mindless theme).

Consider some uses from Wikipedia’s disambiguation page for zombie, and start with the mindless theme. A use from computing:

Zombie …, a computer compromised by a hacker and used to perform malicious tasks

And then in the animal world, uses for pathogens or parasites that take over a creature and control its behavior, producing zombie ants, zombie spiders, zombie rats, etc. Consider, for example, an 8/6/15 feature story, “Zombie spiders enslaved by manipulative wasp masters”, beginning:

Beware the wasps that turn unsuspecting spiders into workaholic zombies.

Japanese researchers have found that a wasp which lays its egg on the back of a spider can take control of its behaviour, making its spider slave build a cosy cocoon for its wasp offspring.

On to the undead theme. Two uses from computing:

Zombie object, in garbage-collected object-oriented programming languages, an object that has been finalized but then resurrected

Zombie process, on Unix-like OS, a process that has completed execution but still has an entry in the process table

And one from finance:

Zombie bank, a financial institution with an economic net worth less than zero that continues to operate because of implicit or explicit government support

Still on the undead theme, turn now to linguistics and my 5/22/05 LLog posting, “Five more thoughts on the That Rule”, where I wrote:

In the process of dissemination, the That Rule has made its way into textbooks and manuals for writers.  Once there, the prescription might well go on forever as a “zombie rule”; no matter how many times, and how thoroughly, it is executed by authorities (like Quirk, Biber, Huddleston & Pullum, or, for that matter, me), it continues its wretched life-in-death in style sheets and grammar checkers and the like.

The metaphor is entirely natural, and might well have been used many times by linguists in lectures, conversations, and so on, but my 2005 use of itis the one that caught on, thanks to my LLog colleagues Geoff Pullum and Mark Liberman.

In a 2006 talk, Geoff distinguished (true) zombie rules, which have a history of being maintained over some time (despite appeals by critics to actual usage), and bogeymen, “rules” invented on some occasion, but without even a history of bad usage advice. In a posting on this blog, I recognized the distinction between natural zombies and constructed zombies, but argued that such a distinction in the history of usage advice shouldn’t have any significance for ordinary users, maintaining that “they both are species of invalid advice” and can be lumped together as zombie rules.

Next up was Mark, in a 2008 LLog posting, “When zombie rules attack”, where he discussed the “split verb” proscription (no adverb between auxiliary and main verb) and credited me with the term zombie rule — and others picked up the attribution from Mark.

Things moved on from there. In two zombie postings in 2009, one on blame, love, and graduate (here) and one on convince (here), I reported on Mark’s and my wrangling with a series of zombies. By then the term zombie rule was standard, at least in one small corner of linguistics.

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