Annals of NomConjObj: Miss Adelaide

Yesterday from Ben Zimmer, e-mail saying that he’d recently seen a performance of the musical “Guys and Dolls” and thought I’d appreciate an exchange in the song “Marry the Man Today” (one of the songs that was cut for the movie adaptation), a duet for the characters Adelaide (Miss Adelaide of the Hot Box girls) and Sarah (Sister Sarah Brown in a Salvation Army band):

Adelaide: At Wanamaker’s and Saks and Klein’s
A lesson I’ve been taught
You can’t get alterations on a dress you haven’t bought.
Sarah: At any vegetable market from Borneo to Nome
You mustn’t squeeze a melon till you get the melon home.
Adelaide: You’ve simply got to gamble.
Sarah: You get no guarantee.
Adelaide: Now doesn’t that kind of apply to you and I?
Sarah: You and me.

(referring to Adelaide and Nathan Detroit, who runs a crap game; and Sarah and Sky Masterson, a high-rolling gambler)

You can listen to the song, in the original cast album, here.

A NomConjObj (nominative conjoined object) from Adelaide, corrected by Sarah. The first instance of NomConjObj in my life that I actually noticed — surely not the first that came past me, but the first I was conscious of, and tried to locate in its social world (working-class NYC low-lifes, in the show) — also part of my first experience of a live performance of a musical, in the original Broadway production, which opened in 1950. I was 10, and it was stunning.

(#1) Playbill from the original production

About the show, then about NomConjObjs.

Guys and Dolls. From Wikipedia:

Guys and Dolls is a musical with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. It is based on “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure” – two short stories by Damon Runyon – and also borrows characters and plot elements from other Runyon stories – most notably “Pick the Winner”.

(#2) Al Hirschfeld, 11/19/50 in NYT, cast left to right: Douglas Deane, Tom Pedi, Stubby Kaye, Johnny Silver, Robert Alda (Sky Masterson), Sam Levene (Nathan Detroit), B.S. Pully, Vivian Blaine (Miss Adelaide), Pat Rooney, Sr., Isabel Bigley (Sister Sarah Brown)

On the central cast and some of their musical numbers:

The band members of the Save-a-Soul Mission, led by the pious and beautiful Sergeant Sarah Brown, call for sinners to “Follow the Fold” and repent.

… Nathan [Detroit, who runs a crap game] goes to watch his fiancée of 14 years, Miss Adelaide, perform her nightclub act (“A Bushel and a Peck”) [at the Hot Box].

And on the duet:

Sarah and Adelaide run into each other, and they commiserate and then resolve to marry their men anyway and reform them later (“Marry the Man Today”).

Ben Zimmer notes that in the 1992 Broadway revival, Adelaide extends the exchange by adding “Whatever!” (you can listen to this version here). The “Whatever!” was added sometime between 1950 and 1992. Certainly, it’s not characteristic of 1950s American English; Ben points out that OED (May 2011 draft addition) dates the interjection whatever to 1965, in an episode of the American tv show Bewitched.

(The NomConjObj, with the “Whatever!”, is in the version of “Marry the Man Today” that I quoted in a 6/5/13 posting “Have an X, have a Y”, which was, however, about features of the duet other than the NomConjObj.)

NomConjObjs. Extensively covered in earlier postings on Language Log and this blog; see the Page on this blog on pronoun case marking for links to these postings, with thumbnail summaries.

The large point here is that NomConjObjs are venerable, seriously venerable, and seem to have arisen independently on several different occasions. There might have been some contribution of hypercorrection in the larger story, but it cannot have been a major factor, especially during the time the usage has been spreading in several parts of the English-speaking world, to become the current norm in informal spoken English. It is now so widespread that I gave up collecting examples several years ago.

Back in 1950 the usage was reasonably common — we can tell this from usage critics who railed against it — but was, at least stereotypically, associated specifically with urban working-class speakers; I’m dubious about the accuracy of the stereotype, but it was widespread enough to find its way into Damon Runyon’s stories about “a distinctive social type from the Brooklyn or Midtown demi-monde” (Wikipedia) and then into the book for Guys and Dolls. Where it caught my 10-year-old ear.

[Added later in the day: Ben Zimmer wonders if NomConjObjs are actually in Runyon’s stories; he didn’t find any in a quick search on-ine. (I had a hard-copy collection of Runyon’s stories, but it went away in my giant book-divestment project.) It might well be that NomConjObj in Guys and Dolls is entirely the work of Frank Loesser.]

Personal note. I didn’t come to Guys and Dolls at the 46th Street Theatre in January 1951 ignorant of American musicals. Far from it: my family had cast recordings from several Broadway shows (on lots and lots of 78s); I especially remember the recordings of Oklahoma! (from 1943) and South Pacific (from 1949) — from “Pore Jud is Daid” to “Some Enchanted Evening”. And then the movies (seen in theaters), of Show Boat from 1936, a rich assortment of Astaire/Rogers and Busby Berkeley films, the film of The Wizard of Oz from 1939, of On the Town from 1949, and more. So I was primed.


3 Responses to “Annals of NomConjObj: Miss Adelaide”

  1. annburlingham Says:

    i miss show-tuning with you!

  2. annburlingham Says:

    also, if you need 78s of Kiss Me, Kate, my mother loved the show so much she has two copies.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Ah, 78s, then 33s, then cassettes, then CDs,… As you might have suspected, I no longer have equipment for vinyl or tape. Still, say Kiss Me, Kate, and I think “Alfred Drake”.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: