Molesting and abusing ambiguously

The news stories are appalling, but this is about an expression in one of the stories:

(1) More needs to be done to protect children from molesting priests. (Gregory Ward in e-mail on 8/29, reporting on a WBEZ-FM (Chicago) news story)

Which led to the contemplation of the N + N compounds:

(2) child molester

(3) child abuse

All of them ambiguous, though all with a (dire) conventionalized sense.

molesting priests. The conventional sense has the phrase as a nominal gerund, a NP meaning (roughly) ‘priests who molest’.

But the phrase can also serve as a VP complement in an aversive construction, call it AverseComp. Schematically, and very crudely, AverseComp:

has the form:
SU V DO [from VPPRP]
(V is keep, protect, save, rescue, prevent)

and (using x^ for the referent of an expression x) entails:
SU^  acts on DO^ in such a way that VP^ does not hold for DO^

So that to protect children from molesting priests (in AverseComp) entails that people will act (protectively) on children in such a way that children will not molest priests. While in the conventional sense of molesting priests (as a nominal gerund), it’s the priests who molest, the VP molesting priests in AverseComp has children doing the molesting. It’s a role reversal.

Digression on the verbs molest and abuse. From NOAD, which lists subsenses roughly in order from the currently most used to the dated or obsolete:

verb molest: [with object] 1 assault or abuse (a person, especially a woman or child) sexually: he was charged with molesting and taking obscene photographs of a ten-year-old boy. 2 dated pester or harass (someone) in an aggressive or persistent manner: the crowd was shouting abuse and molesting the two police officers.

verb abuse: [with object] 1 [a] use (something) to bad effect or for a bad purpose; misuse: the judge abused his power by imposing the fines. [b] make excessive and habitual use of (alcohol or drugs, especially illegal ones). 2 [a] treat (a person or an animal) with cruelty or violence, especially regularly or repeatedly: riders who abuse their horses should be prosecuted. [b] assault (someone, especially a woman or child) sexually: he was a depraved man who had abused his two young daughters

Both molest and abuse started out with more general meanings and then developed specialized sexual senses, ‘molest sexually’ and ‘abuse sexually’. But for molest, the sexual sense is now the dominant one, while for abuse, the sexual sense is still just one of several specialized senses.

In any case, molesting in the VP complement in AverseComp could be non-sexual, roughly synonymous with assaulting, though in current English the sexual sense is by far the most easily available one.

Role reversals. Reading (1) as an instance of AverseComp is (edgily) funny because it has children (acting from a position of no power or authority) molesting — whether sexually or just assaulting — priests. This doesn’t happen in the real world. In fact, assaults of any sort on priests are so rare as to be remarkable; it happens, but it makes the news.  Here, a headline from a 7/30 story on NBC Channel 10 in Philadelphia:

We should keep / protect / save / rescue / prevent men from attacking / assaulting priests. And from biting dogs

In an e-mail exhange with Gregory Ward, Larry Horn, and some others, I seized on the absurdity in the children molesting priests case, to wonder:

Question for the day: should children be encouraged to molest priests — in pre-emptive strikes, as acts of revenge, or as part of a thorough program of anti-clericalism?

One contributor in the e-mail discussion enthusiastically responded “All of the above!” An attitude I am deeply sympathetic with.

N + N compounds. Larry Horn then moved the discussion away from AverseComp to N + N compounds embodying a similar ambiguity in role assignments: “Well, if a child soldier is a soldier who’s a child and a child actor is an actor who’s a child, what after all would you expect a child molester to be?”

This takes us into familiar territory, of N + N compounds and the semantic relationship between the modifier N1 and the head N2. Every compound is potentially ambiguous in a number of ways, though some are conventionalized with one or two interpretations, and though many of the potential interpretations are absurd or unlikely in the real world. Cartoons often exploit the ridiculous or unlikely interpretations in such arrays.

For example, from my 6/3/18 posting “The canine therapist”, with composites ambiguous between Use and Copulative/Predicative:

[The Adj + N nominal] canine therapist and [the N + N compound] dog therapist are both (at least) two-ways ambiguous, and in parallel ways: ‘therapist for dogs’ [a Use composite] (as in the cartoon) and ‘therapist who is a dog’ [a Copulative/Predicative composite, illustrated in other cartoons]

Back in the world of molestation, the N + N compound child molester has a conventionalized interpretation, as a Patient/Object compound (‘molester of children’), but it could also, with an easy stretch of the imagination, be understood as a Copulative/Predicative compound (‘molester who is a child’).

Having dealt with child molester, the e-mail group was moved by Gregory Ward on to the N + N compound child abuse. Its conventionalized interpretation is as a Patient/Object compound ‘abuse of children’, but then there’s the outrageous Agent/Subject interpretation ‘abuse by children’. Parallel to an ambiguity noted in a comment (by librarian Ryan Tamares) on my 10/15/16 posting “Grammar nazi on the loose in the library”: Ryan reflected on the compound patron abuse as a Patient/Object compound (‘abuse of patrons’) or as a more occupationally poignant Agent/Subject compound (‘abuse by patrons’).



3 Responses to “Molesting and abusing ambiguously”

  1. chrishansenhome Says:

    There is a meaning of “molest” that is in addition to what you’ve detailed above. In Singapore, “molest” is used as a noun, as in “Abuser charged with molest”, rather than the Western English word “molestation”. This may also be used in Malaysia, but I’m familiar with its use in Singapore only. Here’s an example:

  2. Christopher Huxley Says:

    This headline last year suggested to me that a hospital had paid to abuse some boys twice:

    NHS trust pays £600,000 to abuse victims of children’s doctor

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