Follow-up: a regular genius

It starts with my 2/19/22 posting “A regular genius”, on quintessential regular (NOAD example: this place is a regular fisherman’s paradise), vs. run-of-the-mill regular (NOAD example: it’s richer than regular pasta).

Which elicited this Facebook comment from Joel Levin:

I get a sarcastic note from he’s a regular genius, in that one might so describe a person who had done something particularly doltish. I thought I might see a mention of that sense in the column.

And then AZ > JL:

In some contexts I get that note too, but I think that’s just an example of the generalization that any compliment can be used sarcastically, not a fact specifically about regular.

And then a comment from Ben Yagoda, making the Jewish connection: it’s probably relevant that JL’s Jewish and I’m, so to speak, Jewish-adjacent; we’re more inclined than a random person to detect a sarcastic or ironic tone in he’s a regular genius. The tone is available for anyone to pick up, but some of us are predisposed to detect it (and to convey it in our own speech).

Ben in the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Lingua Franca blog, “In Which I Make Like a Regular William Safire” on 11/13/18 (note the Yinglishism make like a):

For reasons not relevant to this post, someone in a recent online discussion brought up a line by Allan (“Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah”) Sherman, the bard of [American] Jewish postwar suburban life. In his 1962 song “Sarah Jackman,” an imagined telephone conversation to the tune of “Frerè Jacques,” one of the call-and-response couplets goes, “How’s her daughter Rita?” / “A regular Lolita.”

It reminded me of a question I’ve pondered for years: How and why did “a regular X,” where is a person famous for specific characteristics, become a standard formulation in Jewish-American lingo? I decided to make like a regular Samuel Johnson or William Safire and apply myself to discovering the answer. My first finding was surprising: The phrasing, which I would rhetorically categorize as a kind of simile, is definitely not of Jewish or Yiddish origin.

… I searched Google Ngram Viewer for some popular variations [regular Einstein, regular Romeo, regular James Bond]

… the Jewish association [of regular Romeo] arrives mid-[20th-]century. …  I asked [a] friend, Andy Cassel, a student of Yiddish, and he said none of the Yiddish words that translate as regular fit this sense. … Andy went on to point out that in Jewish use, the expression is usually less glorifying than deflating. That is, calling someone “a regular Rockefeller” suggests not that he is fabulously wealthy but rather that he acts like it. He concluded, “I’m leaning toward the idea that it existed pre-Yiddish immigration, and just acquired that connotation because of Jews’ affinity for irony and pretense-puncturing.” What’s not to like about that explanation?

(Finishing with another Yinglishism, what’s not to like (about)? Meanwhile, my thanks to Ben for providing me with an ad-free copy of his Lingua Franca piece.)

My response to Ben:

I think your point is right on; putting it in somewhat different terms: it’s not that the linguistic expression regular (or real, which works similarly) has a (sarcastic or ironic) sense, roughly ‘pretend, feigned’, especially in American Jewish usage, but that irony and pretense-puncturing in talk are cultural practices of American Jews (and those influenced by these practices, like me).

The distinction I’m drawing here is between conventions of a language — in this case, the (conventional) meanings of lexical items, like the adjective regular — and cultural practices involving language, that is, conventions of language use (in a culture) — in this case, the common practice (in the American Jewish subculture) of using complimentary linguistic expressions sarcastically or ironically, to convey the opposite of their normal use, and so to convey contempt for the referent. In brief: the noun genius doesn’t have a sense ‘dolt’ in addition to the sense ‘person of exceptional intelligence or creativity’; but it is always available for creative use in this way, and is especially likely to be so used in certain subcultures.

(There’s a ton of complexity here, some of which I hope to address in a long-dormant posting on so-called Neg-Raising in English, should I live so long. But I do need to point out that what counts as a convention of language can change over time and can differ for different groups of speakers. Hypothetically, it would be possible for genius to be used sarcastically, within some group, with such frequency that some speakers would conclude that it had a sense ‘dolt’. There are attested developments parallel to this hypothetical one.)

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