Language Sunday in the comics

Four in my comics feed Sunday morning: a One Big Happy with the derived adjective quotatious; a Zippy on pangrams; a Mother Goose and Grimm with an ambiguity in marine biologist; and a Doonesbury nominally about pronoun choices, but about much more.

One Big Happy. An exchange between Ruthie and her Aunt Dolly, in which Dolly throws out hackneyed proverbial expressions and Ruthie lobs them back with her own twists on them:


And in the last panel, Ruthie uses the word quotatious, meaning something like ‘given to, fond of, using quotations’. For Ruthie, this was surely a fresh invention, built on the quotat– of the N quotation and the Adj-forming derivational suffix –ious. As it happens, Ruthie wasn’t the first: the Collins English Dictionary has it, glossed ‘using or involving many quotations’, and the Oxford Dictionaries site has a longer entry:

Especially of a person: fond of using quotations; characterized by frequent quotation. Origin; Mid 19th century; earliest use found in The Southern Literary Messenger.

Zippy. The strip explains what a pangram is and gives five examples, one per panel: four goofily nonsensical ones, plus one that reads like ordinary, but odd, English:


Mother Goose and Grimm. With a play on an ambiguity that is sufficiently outré that I missed it on first reading:


The expression marine biologist ‘scientist specializing in marine biology’ is, semantically, marine biology + the derivational suffix –ist, though formally it is clearly marine + biologist. (In the trade, this is known as a bracketing paradox: one bracketing into parts for one purpose, another for another.) But let me focus on marine biology.

The conventionalized sense of marine biology (‘the scientific study of organisms in the ocean or other marine bodies of water’) involves an Adj marine + a head N biology. The Adj in this sense of the compound is non-predicating: marine biology is not biology that is marine, though there are other, predicating, senses of the compound (‘biology in or on the ocean; watery biology’), though these aren’t particularly useful. (The conventionalized sense of marine biology involves a particular type of non-predicating Adj sometimes called pseudo-adjectives: an Adj that is interpreted by evoking a N. This marine biology is understood much like ocean biology, a N + N compound with the first N ocean.)

None of this gets us to the marine biology that concerns Ralph the Boston terrier in #3, which is a N + N compound meaning — wait for it — ‘the biology of marines’, involving as first N (from NOAD2):

marine: a member of a body of troops trained to serve on land or at sea, in particular a member of the US Marine Corps

Add to this the stereotype of marines, and especially U.S. Marines, as being inclined to getting tattoos, and you get the joke in #3.

Doonesbury. This one is really complex.


It begins with Sam, knowing that Jan presents themself as non-binary, asking Jan what their preference in pronouns is: gendered he or she; non-gendered they; or some invented pronoun like xie. Jan declines, unhelpfully, to suggest a choice, leaving other people with the options of either projecting their opinion about Jan’s identity in their choice of pronouns or else skipping from pronoun to pronoun: He said xie expressed herself badly. Or maybe, proper names throughout: Jan said Jan expressed Janself badly.

Any choice but the first forces people to violate, left and right,  the conventions for expressing and comprehending coreference and non-coreference. And if Jan insists their identity is profoundly non-binary, totally outside of gender, then the only polite solution for other people is to refer to Jan with an non-gendered pronoun, which is what I’ve done above (using forms of they).

But pronouns are the least of the problems. Jan at first talks as if they were totally out of the gender identity universe and expected people to relate to them socially without any assumptions connected to gender — even, presumably, assumptions by people who recognize a number of gender identities, not just two. This is an enormously big ask.

Even bigger when intimate relations enter the picture, as they do towards the end of #4. I have certainly had people tell me that their attraction to people is entirely on the basis of their personalites, and that matters of sex and gender don’t enter into it at all. That sounds to me like a remarkable achievement, one that I can’t imagine managing myself. Certainly not one that anyone should expect other people to manage easily: intimate relations are relations between persons, yes, but they’re also relations between bodies, relations in which the appearance, feel, and scent of bodies are significant.

And despite their assertions earlier in the strip, at the end Jan re-configures themself as on a journey in gender space (not as being outside of gender space), in which case Sam’s location in that space now becomes important. Will they be able to hook up?

So now the soap opera of attraction is back in some kind of gender space — maybe a very complicated one, but still a gender space.

One Response to “Language Sunday in the comics”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    On Facebook:

    From Robert Coren: Actually, of the “Zippy” pangrams, the 2nd and 4th look perfectly sensible to me, although #4 is kind of a cheat, with all the initialisms.

    I grant that #2 is pretty sensible.

    From Ben Zimmer: #4 is the only “perfect” pangram (26 letters) given by Zippy. It’s one of the more comprehensible ones. (First appeared in Games Magazine, Aug. 1986.)

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: