What do you have?

The One Big Happy from October 12th, a dialogue between Joe and James in which we experience a tiny bit of the fabulous flexibility of the English verb have:


James seems not to have registered the noun hobby (‘an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure’ (NOAD)) and so takes hobbies in have hobbies to be the name of a disease, infection, or medical condition, like (the) mumps. For him, chickenpox and the mumps, but not hobbies is just an ordinary coordination, but for the rest of us, it’s prime-grade zeugma, like (I had) asthma and artistic inclinations — with the extra wrinkle that though both chickenpox and mumps end in a plural-resembling /s/ (and so superficially resemble the PL hobbies), both are grammatically SG:

chickenpox / (the) mumps once was / *were a common childhood disease, but vaccines have nearly eliminated it / *them [SG for subject-verb agreement and also for anaphor selection]

Two notes: on the morphosyntax of disease names; and on the extraordinary versatility of have (which just invites zeugmas and zeugmoids).

Disease names. The names, both medical and everyday, of diseases (and infections, afflictions, and conditions) generally are M (mass) nouns (hence also SG), mostly anarthrous (with no article) and singular in appearance: acneanthrax, asthma, bronchitis, botulism, brucellosis, cancer, chlamydia, diphtheria, eczema, gout, insomnia, lockjaw, meningitis, pleurisypneumonia, scabies, thrush, vertigo, and so on.

But there are many, many complications, a few of which I’ll touch on in notes here.

Note. A subset of names of conditions or infections are C (count) nouns, with SG using the indefinite article (have a cold, a fever, etc.) and bare PL (have colds, fevers, etc.).

Note. There’s a fairly large class of disease names that are compound Ns, with possessive or plain modifying Ns: e.g., Meniere’s disease, Lyme disease, Huntington’s chorea, Kleinfelter(‘s) syndrome, Tourette(‘s) syndrome. Plus a set with head N fever in combination with modifying Ns and Adjs: scarlet / rheumatic / yellow / dengue / cat scratch fever. The head Ns in these are otherwise C nouns, but the composites as wholes are M: much Lyme disease is hard to treat (with much conveying ‘many cases of’), there is a lot of scarlet fever in this school (with a lot of conveying ‘many cases of’).

Note. Disease names are generally anarthrous, but for some there’s variation on this point: mumps and measles are variably arthrous; and a number of other disease names were historically arthrous for some speakers and still are for some: the smallpox, the diabetes, the influenza, the scarlet fever, etc.

Variation in action on mumps:



Note. Though influenza is now anarthrous in standard English (I’m suffering from influenza), the clipping flu is usually arthrous (I’m suffering from the flu).

Note. For current speakers, smallpox and chickenpox / chicken pox are straightforwardly SG (and anarthrous) and don’t strike people as even resembling plurals (any more than anthrax does, or for that matter, tax), but historically they derive from plurals. From NOAD (note arthrousness in senses b and c):

noun pox: [a] any of several viral diseases producing a rash of pimples that become pus-filled and leave pockmarks on healing. [b] (the poxinformal syphilis. [c] (the poxhistorical smallpox. … ORIGIN late Middle English: alteration of pocks, plural of pock. [A case where the name of the symptom became the name of the disease. And then, since it was a disease name, it was interpreted as M SG.]

Having it all. The number of senses of have that a lexicographer might want to distinguish is enormous — a situation that seems to have led the edtors of NOAD to finesse most of these distinctions in favor of two big clusters of senses, with a small selection of subsenses:

verb have: 1 (also have got) possess, own, or hold… [including the use in have a hobby] 2 [a] experience; undergo: I went to a few parties and had a good time | I was having difficulty in keeping awake. [b] (also have got) suffer from (an illness, ailment, or disability): I’ve got a headache

Juxtaposing occurrences of have with different senses (as indicated by the different sorts of objects they occur with) is a rich source of zeugmoid humor. A very modest example from my 6/5/13 posting “Have an X, have a Y”, in the song “Marry the Man Today” from Guys and Dolls:

Have a pot roast / Have a headache / Have a baby

As I wrote there, “A zeugmoid chain, with three different senses of have in successive VPs”. Challenging, and therefore playfully funny, because you have to keep shifting your interpretation of have from one of its (parallel) occurrences to the next.

Conjoin the objects and combine them with only one occurrence of have and you get an even more intense zeugma:

Have a pot roast, a headache, and a baby

Which gets us to the somewhat simpler:

I had chickenpox and the mumps, but not hobbies

(where had is understood in sense 2b with the disease-denoting object chickenpox and the mumps, but in one of the subsenses of sense 1 with the activity-denoting object hobbies).

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