From a child’s viewpoint

Three recent cartoons: a Calvin and Hobbes for the 4th of July, and two One Big Happy strips in which Ruthie copes with the language she hears:




The midnight ride of Paul Revere. In #1, Calvin combines two pieces of knowledge: first, that in the American Revolutionary War (which we celebrate on July 4th, Independence Day) Paul Revere is “best known for his midnight ride to alert the colonial militia in April 1775 to the approach of British forces before the battles of Lexington and Concord” (Wikipedia); and, second, that major American holidays are occasions for gift-giving, and that on the best of these, children’s gifts are delivered by a legendary agent (Santa Claus at Christmas, the Easter Bunny). So it makes sense that Paul Revere should be riding into town on the Fourth of July with gifts for kids.

Arthrous by-names. In #2, Ruthie is faced with a naming pattern in English that uses an arthrous by-name — that is, an epithet, sobriquet, or nickname with a definite article:

(LN + by-name) Jones the Baker, (using a Welsh English pattern:) Jones the Bread; (FN + by-name) Frank the Enforcer, Andre the Giant, Glinda the Good

(In written English, the definite article is sometimes capitalized in these names.)

These patterns appear in a variety of sociocultural contexts, among them in gangster (or mock-gangster) names, as for Ruthie’s grandfather’s Italian family. The thing is, to Ruthie they sound like ordinary three-part names in English: FN MN LN. With the definite article the (or The) as MN.

From a 12/13/14 posting on, among other things, gangster names:

Well, in the nickname world there are simple nicknames, versions of personal names (“first names”, or FNs) — Margaret “Maggie” Thatcher, Edward “Ted” Kennedy — and what I’ll call ornamental nicknames, from many sources, having to do with appearance, activities, personal history, family name (“last name”, or LN), and so on; the history of an ornamental nickname can be entirely non-obvious and unpredictable (John Robert “Haj” Ross, George Herbert Walker “Poppy” Bush). Simple nicknames are introduced via the quotation strategy only in special circumstances (like Wikipedia entries) but otherwise function, without note, as alternative FNs. Ornamental nicknames usually require introduction via the quotation strategy, which treats them like middle names.

Ornamental nicknames can function, as simple nicknames do, as alternative FNs: along with LN (Haj Ross, Poppy Bush, Fatty Arbuckle, Legs Diamond, Ratface Putin, etc.) or as stand-alones (Haj, Poppy, Fatty, Legs, Ratface, etc.).

(Just watched: Law & Order episode 320, “Nowhere Man”, featuring mobmen Anthony Biscotti, known as Biscuits from his LN, and Frederico Libretti, known as Books from a bilingual play on his LN. Throughout the show, they are simply referred to as “Biscuits and Books”.)

Gangster nicknames are ornamental nicknames, but sometimes have a syntactic option not otherwise available to ornamental nicknames: FN + Nickname, with Nickname treated like LN: Frankie “Knuckles” Gambino referred to as Frankie Knuckles.

Some attested variants for referring to gangster Frank Nitti:

the Enforcer, Frank the Enforcer, Nitti the Enforcer, Frank “the Enforcer” Nitti

On the man, from Wikipedia:

Francesco Raffaele Nitto (January 27, 1886 – March 19, 1943), also known as Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti, was an Italian-American gangster. One of Al Capone’s top henchmen, Nitti was in charge of all strong-arm and ‘muscle’ operations. Nitti later succeeded Capone as boss of the Chicago Outfit.

pithy. In #3, the poseur artist — a poseuse? — pretty much gets what she deserves, for using the adjective pithy to a child. Of course, the adjective is unfamiliar to Ruthie, and of course Ruthie goes with the phonologically most similar word in her experience: pissy, used more or less literally — in the first of NOAD2’s senses for the adjective:

1 relating to or suggestive of urine; inferior; contemptible. 2 chiefly US  arrogantly argumentative.

Ruthie then earnestly and helpfully offers her family’s bathroom!

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