X-adjacent

(Warning: moderately technical linguistics ahead — tailored for the non-specialist, but unsparing with crucial concepts and their accompanying terminology.)

Watching aimless tv recently, I came across this example, from NCIS: New Orleans, Season 6 Episode 16:

Hardin doesn’t have a criminal record, but he has been scandal-adjacent more than once. (from the transcript)

It was the Adj scandal-adjacent (of the form N + Adj) that caught my eye: literally ‘adjacent to scandal’, but here in an extended sense, roughly ‘(closely) associated with scandal’, suggesting that the association is uncomfortably close.

I then discovered that scandal-adjacent (sometimes spelled scandal adjacent) was reasonably common, and fraud-adjacent was too.  And recalled a posting of mine on an extraordinarily euphemistic occurrence of adult adjacent with adult referring to sex.

It turns out that the compound Adj pattern X-adjacent ‘adjacent to X’ is an open one, with a variety of examples in OED3 (Dec. 2011). Except that OED3 incorrectly characterizes the pattern as involving postmodification rather than compounding.

Crucial note. English has both Adjs (of several types) serving as post-modifiers of Ns; and also compound Adjs of the form N + Adj (again, of several types). Both involve the sequence N Adj, but in the first case (postmodification) the N is the head of the combination, and the combination is a nominal, occurring in nominal syntactic contexts; while in the second case (compounding) the Adj is the head of the combination, and the combination is an adjectival, occurring in adjectival syntactic contexts.

More examples. A couple of scandaladjacent examples:

Brian Mulroney: From scandal-adjacent elitist to magnanimous statesman (link)

But are we required to hire a private eye to run a background check on every person who invites us over? Must we avoid anyone even scandal adjacent? What if a person is totally clean but happens to have the last name Epstein or the first name Jeffrey? I know a lot of Jeffreys. And a lot of Epsteins. (link)

Then a couple of fraud-adjacent examples:

This is a sequence of corporate governance moves that is honestly new to me: 1. Do some stuff that is, let us say, arguably fraud-adjacent. (link)

There are some merchant fraud-adjacent scams, such as triangulation fraud, that can affect merchants and lead to chargebacks (link)

By way of illustration (the topic isn’t especially visual, so this is the best I can do), the massively scandal- and fraud-adjacent U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.):


(photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Then from OED3 (Dec. 2011) on the adj. and noun adjacent

A. adj. … 3. As a postmodifier: that is physically next to or very near the specified location or thing. In extended use: characterized by some aspects of, or similar to, the specified concept, phenomenon, etc.

1949 Child Health Services Georgia (Amer. Acad. Pediatrics) iv. 18 Half of these out-patient departments were in the Metro-adjacent Counties.
1981 N.Y. Times 10 May  r47/5 Beverly Hills adjacent. Hollywood writer desires to sublet luxurious exquisitely furnished 2 BR apt.
1993 Jrnl. Periodontol. 64 730 The treatment also affected the proximal surface of the defect-adjacent tooth.
2011 @ZambianNOTNaij 6 May in twitter.com (accessed 16 Mar. 2021) Stereotypes are racism adjacent in my opinion.
2020 Business Mirror (Philippines(Nexis) 27 Dec. [The films] were intended to be straight-up thrillers, but..they ended up as horror-adjacent black comedies.

Previously on this blog. From my 7/27/21 posting “An adult adjacent industry firm”:

Ok, I’m leading with the meat of the story, the expression adult adjacent industry as a modifier of the noun firm ‘business company’ — an expression I believe was entirely new, and astonishing, to me (and so far seems to be attested only in the specific piece of e-mail, from what I’ll call the X Group, that brought the expression to me yesterday as a blogger and to at least one other blogger).

The expression is stunningly euphemistic, ultimately referring to a class of businesses that sell sex: adjacent is euphemistic for direct involvement in (it’s not merely near to, but digs right in with gusto), and the involvement in question is in the adult industry, a euphemism for the sex industry, in particular for the branch of it that supplies photographic and/or written pornography (hot stuff).

So: adult adjacent = sex-adjacent, roughly ‘intimately associated with sex’.

Postmodifier? So sez OED3 of –adjacent. From Wikipedia:

A postpositive adjective or postnominal adjective is an adjective that is placed after the noun or pronoun that it modifies, as in noun phrases such as attorney general, queen regnant, or all matters financial.

Some adjectives are specialized as postmodifiers: notably, galore, as in examples galore. And there are syntactic constructions that allow single-word adjectives postnominally, as in Everyone short stand in the front, everyone tall in the back.

In this type of N Adj sequence, the N is clearly the head, and the combination functions as a nominal. Evidence in favor of these analytical claims, very briefly:

the sequence as a whole has the syntax of a nominal: as SU (Wine galore flowed through the evening; Everyone tall stood in the back); as DO (They supplied examples galore; The committee handles all matters financial)

the sequence as a whole is categorized for the nominal grammatical category of number (SG vs. PL),  and if this categorization is marked inflectionally, it’s marked on the N as head, not the Adj: PL in We found examples galore, *We found example galores.

Then: the adjacent of N-adjacent examples does not behave like a postmodifier, with the N as head. Scandal-adjacent doesn’t have the syntax of a nominal with the head scandal. In particular, ??Scandal-adjacent makes me uncomfortable (with scandal-adjacent as SU) is acceptable only with a special interpretation — metalinguistic, say — for the SU.  Similarly for the DO in ??I abhor scandal-adjacent. Scandals-adjacent (with PL marking on the N scandal) is marginal; its acceptability depends on the acceptability of compounds with PL scandals as first element (like a scandals investigation).

Head of compound? First, note that there are quite clear examples of adjectival compounds of the form N + Adj, with Adj as the head. Two of these, both treated as compounds in OED3: compounds of the form X-free, (roughly) ‘free of X’; and compounds of the form X-ready, (roughly) ‘ready for X’. To which I now propose adding compounds of the form X-adjacent, (roughly) ‘adacent to X’.

— X-free as in smoke-free, sugar-free, gluten-free, trouble-free, sugar-free, lead-free. The first elements are all M[ass] nouns, but a few C[ount] nouns are also well attested: especially cat-free (zone, buildings, etc.), and dog-free (area, beach, etc.). (Note that, as is usual with Ns in compounds, C nouns appear in their stem form — identical to the SG — while, in these cases, being understood as PLs — ‘free of cats / dogs’.)

— X-ready as in oven-ready, camera-ready, web-ready, battle-ready, broiler-ready. Here the Ns are mostly understood as non-specific SGs — ‘ready for a / the / your broiler’, etc.

As with X-adjacent, these combinations don’t have the syntax of N-headed nominals. But they do have an assortment of properties of Adj-headed adjectivals. Like plain Adjs, they can be nominalized: cat-free-ness, oven-readiness — and beach-adjacency. And they occur in an assortment of syntactic degree constructions:

— positive degree in so and too constructions: so sugar-free that I felt I had to add sweetener, too sugar-free for me to find it enjoyable; so camera-ready that the whole process took only a couple of minutes, too battle-ready for our comfortand so scandal-adjacent no one would touch him, too fraud-adjacent for us to put him on the committee

— comparative degree in more constructions: more sugar-free than any soda I’ve ever drunk, more battle-ready than Thorand more beach-adjacent than the last placed we looked at

— superlative degree in most constructions: the most sugar-free of all the sodas we looked at, the most battle-ready soldier in the unitand the most scandal-adjacent member of Congress

Examples of this degree of complexity are hard to find, at least for someone with my limited search resources, but here’s an actual comparative example from the net:

He has now been canned, ending one of the weirder, more scandal-adjacent tenures of Team [X]’s tattered tenure, and that is saying something. (link)

To sum up: on every applicable test that I can think of, X-adjacent combinations do not act like N-headed nominals (Ns with postmodifier Adj) and do look like Adj-headed adjectivals (N + Adj compounds). OED3 just has this one wrong.

2 Responses to “X-adjacent”

  1. J. B. Levin Says:

    Looking at the examples of postmodifier N-adjacent as SU or DO makes me want to hear “adjacency”. “I abhor scandal-adjacency” sounds correct. To me this only strengthens the case you make against this characterization.
    (Commenting here as usual as a lay person who just “knows” what sounds right.)

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