Briefly: exocentric V + N

(Warning: a vulgar term for the primary female sexual anatomy will end up playing a big role in this posting.)

Where this is going: to an alternative name for an American President (#45, aka TFG); and to an alternative name for a classic American novel (by J.D. Salinger) — both names being exocentric V + N compound nouns, the first in English, the second in French. (I’ll call them exoVerNs for short.)

Conceptual background. We’re dealing here with V + N compound nouns in which the notional head is not the usual one — the referent of the second element (the N in the combination) — but instead is a referent not explicit in either element of the compound, a referent calculated from the semantic relationship between the two elements. For concreteness, we’ll look at the English exoVerN catchtfly, referring to a plant (especially one in the genus Silene or Lychnis) whose sticky stems may trap small insects; and the French exoVerN gratte-ciel, literally scrape-sky, referring to a very tall building of many stories.

These compounds have Agt/Inst (agentive / instrumental) semantics, with the N understood as the direct object of the V — so that the notional head is someone or something that Vs Ns: in our examples, a catchfly is something that (potentially) catches flies; and a gratte-ciel is something that (metaphorically) scrapes the sky.

In your everyday compound — like, say, English housefly — the second element (here, the N fly) supplies the notional head of the compound: the compound refers to a (kind of) fly — it’s subsective. In a more traditional terminology, it’s endocentric, with its center, its notional head, within the compound. An exoVerN, in contrast, is exocentric: a catchfly is a (kind of) plant (not a fly), a gratte-ciel is a (kind of) building (not a sky).

A catchfly and a gratte-ciel:

(#1) Silene armeria, the garden catchfly / Sweet William catchfly, from the Gardening Know How site, “Growing Silene Armeria: Learn How To Grow Catchfly Plants” by Bonnie L. Grant (image by Henk Hulshof)

(#2) One of my favorite gratte-ciel(s), looking aspirational: the Art Deco Chrysler Building, on the East Side of Manhattan, at the intersection of 42nd St. and Lexington Ave. in Midtown (James Maher Photography)

exoVerNs in French and English. As a vehicle for expressing Agt/Inst semantics in morphology, exoVerNs have very different status in the two languages. In French, exoVerNs are the routine device for this purpose; a number of them (like the metaphorical gratte-ciel) are conventionalized, but new ones can be freely created at any time. In contrast, in English, exoVerNs are a minor device for this purpose, available throughout the history of the language, occasionally becoming fashionable for a time (as in the 16th century), but never serving as the routine morphological expression of Agt/Inst semantics; instead, in English this service is provided by synthetic compounds of the form N + V-er, with the Agt/Inst suffix –er:

— flycatcher / fly-catcher, denoting something that catches flies (conventionally specialized to refer to a type of bird, but also available for semantically transparent use: this useful household device is a fly-catcher for kitchensthe catchfly is a fly-catcher plant)

skyscraper, denoting a tall building of many stories, metaphorically something that scrapes the sky (gratte-ciel was how skyscraper got borrowed from English to French, French lacking  N1 + N2 compounds in general, including those in which N2 is of the form V + Agt/Inst suffix; there is a derived N gratteur ‘scratcher, scraper’, figuratively ‘moocher, parasite’, but nothing like *ciel-gratteur, lit. ‘sky-scraper’); cf. the semantically more transparent ice scraper, denoting a device for scraping ice (from the windshield of a car)

Some English exoVerNs over the centuries: catchfly and pickpocket (16th century), killjoy (18th century), suck-thumb ‘a child that sucks its thumb’ (19th century), my Grabpussy ‘POTUS #45’ (21st century; see below).

Semantic specialization. As has been noted by many observers, in the English 16th-century fashion for exoVerNs, we see a further semantic development: the many coinages referring to human beings (rather than inanimate objects) are predominantly derogatory, even insulting. Paradigm examples of this sort, the cutthroat killjoy pickpockets:

— cut-throat / cutthroat ‘throat-cutter, (NOAD) a murderer or other violent criminal’

— killjjoy ‘joy-killer, (NOAD) a person who deliberately spoils the enjoyment of others through resentful or overly sober behavior’

— pickpocket ‘pocket-picker, (NOAD) a person who steals from people’s pockets’

The derogatory connotation carries through to new coinages using the exoVerN pattern. Which brings us to my coinage (SquireHelmet) Grabpussy as a derogatory name for POTUS #45.

The vile perquisites of stardom. The background, from Wikipedia:

On October 7, 2016, one month before the United States presidential election, The Washington Post published a video and accompanying article about then-presidential candidate [N N] and television host Billy Bush having “an extremely lewd conversation about women” in 2005. [N] and Bush were in a bus on their way to film an episode of Access Hollywood, a show owned by NBCUniversal. In the video, [N] described his attempt to seduce a married woman and indicated he might start kissing a woman that he and Bush were about to meet. He added, “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. … Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

Note: the problem here is not really the term pussy. This bit of sexual slang can be used boldly and celebratorily in reference to the vagina (or, in fact, to the male anus as a sexual, rather than excretory, organ) — the vagina viewed as a (powerful) source of pleasure, both receptive and insertive. The problem is in the contemptuous, utterly vile, attitude that [N N] flaunts towards women and their bodies.

In response, as surveyed in my 10/29/16 posting “Grab It While You Can”, a wave of pussy-grabbing protest art immediately broke, including this mail art by Ryan Tamares:


And I was inspired to malign [N N] via the exoVerN name Grabpussy, which I’ve used ever since for the unspeakable former guy. I just love the way it rolls off the tongue.

And now to English vs. French. In e-mail yesterday from Luc Baronian, under the header “NV compounds in English”, at least initially about publications suggesting that exoVerNs appeared in English through influence from French — not a very likely hypothesis, given the full history of exoVerNs in English and the derogatory connotations of so many of the human exoVerNs in English, not notable in French. I mentioned my Grabpussy, and Luc responded (response lightly edited by me):

When I read Grabpussy it triggered L’Attrape-cœurs [an exoVerN, literally ‘catch-hearts’] in my brain, which is the French title for Catcher in the Rye, which is more romantic… though one doesn’t necessarily exclude the other

Yes, there’s a poignant sweetness in L’Attrape-cœurs that’s absent in Grabpussy, and that sweetness translates the aching earnestness of Salinger’s Agt/Inst derivative catcher into the romantic attachment of the exoVerN attrape-cœurs.

The background, from Wikipedia:

The Catcher in the Rye is an American novel by J. D. Salinger that was partially published in serial form from 1945–46 before being novelized in 1951. Originally intended for adults, it is often read by adolescents for its themes of angst and alienation, and as a critique of superficiality in society. The novel also deals with complex issues of innocence, identity, belonging, loss, connection, sex, and depression. The main character, Holden Caulfield, has become an icon for teenage rebellion. Caulfield, nearly of age, gives his opinion on just about everything as he narrates his recent life events. [AZ: I read it not long after it was published in full; I was 12 at the time, precocious in many ways, and familiar in a superficial way with the NYC settings of the novel]

… [the explanation of the title:] When asked if he cares about anything, Holden shares a selfless fantasy he has been thinking about (based on a mishearing of Robert Burns’s Comin’ Through the Rye), in which he imagines himself as making a job of saving children running through a field of rye by catching them before they fell off a nearby cliff (a “catcher in the rye”).

The passage in the novel:

I thought it was, “If a body catch a body,” Anyway, i keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and no ones around – nobody big I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of this crazy cliff. What i have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they are going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know its crazy, but that the only thing I’s really like to be. I know its crazy.

Part of Holden’s larger impulse to protect the innocence of little kids (also seen in his fixing the graffito FUCK to BOOK to keep the taboo item from the eyes of little kids). I saw that impulse at 12, and still do, as a lament for his own lost innocence, plus a glimmer of understanding that he was in fact becoming one of those phonies he constantly inveighed against.

(I remember thinking, again and again, “What an asshole!”, and then getting twinges of appreciation for the complexity of Holden’s feelings and his motives. And meta-twinges of admiration for Salinger’s writing; I was already sure that whatever I did in life, writing would be an important part of it, so I earnestly scrutinized what effects could be created through words on a page and how writers achieved them. I read that misheard-Burns passage over and over, analyzing every detail in its composition.)

In French, of course, Holden catches, not (just) the little kids’ bodies, but their hearts.

One Response to “Briefly: exocentric V + N”

  1. Luc Baronian Says:

    Thanks for this wonderful piece, Arnold! Just a few comments:

    1) I would translate “gratte-ciel” as “scratch-sky”, rather than “scrape-sky”. Granted, there is no equivalent of “scrape” in French and it has the advantage of being closer to the English compound, but I do feel “scratch” is a more direct translation.

    2) The tweets that started our conversation were by David Thomas Moore (forwarded to me by my former student Émilie Morin). He did not suggest that it was a French influence. It was me wondering whether it could be the case, in spite of my hunch that it wasn’t (based on the period he mentions).

    3) There’s an important restriction to the French V+N verbs that I point out on p. 190 of my dissertation: only a handful of verbs outside the first group can form such compounds (the -ouvrir/-ffrir conjugation, the -battre verbs, tordre and valoir). Notice they are all similar to first group verbs in lacking a theme vowel in the 3sg present singular (ouvre, couvre, souffre, rabat, tord, vaut), which is the form the V+N compounds are formed on.

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