On the interview watch

From recent American broadcast news interviews, yielding notable examples of familiar phenomena: the 2pbfV (2-part back-formed V) family-plan ‘do family planning’; and the phrase-final truncation of a formulaic expression, not give a rat’s ass ‘not care at all’, in the truncated not give a rat’s.

Both phenomena illustrate a drive towards brevity of expression (which makes life easier for the speaker), balanced against the hearer’s need for clarity of expression: to work out what the speaker intended to convey, the hearer must be able to supply crucial background knowledge (they have to know the compound noun family planning, with its specialized sense; they have to know the negative-polarity idiom (not) give a rat’s ass ‘not care at all’ and appreciate the zing in its vulgar minimizer rat’s ass), so the speaker must assess those abilities and craft their speech to suit their audience. It’s a complex dance, and like social dancing, it happens in the moment, on the fly, using practiced patterns while collaborating to make something new.

Abigail Disney’s Unidentified Person’s 2pbfV. From 9/24, Michel Martin interviewing Abigail Disney on NPR about her film The American Dream And Other Fairy Tales:

(#1) Abigail Disney at Firehouse DCTV’s Cinema for Documentary Film ribbon cutting ceremony on 9/20/22 in NYC (photo: Santiago Felipe / Getty Images)

MARTIN: There’s a powerful scene at the beginning of the film where you are sitting with a group of Disney employees who are organizing for better working conditions. And you ask them, how many of you have slept in your car? How many of you have had to use food stamps? How many of you have gone without medical care? And so many of the employees raise their hands, you know, multiple times. It’s disheartening. I mean, one woman talks about how she basically has made the decision not to have children because she doesn’t think she could support them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I am somebody who doesn’t have kids. I don’t have the finances to take care of a child in the way that I would like to. It’s affected my ability to family plan and to look towards my future as far as my personal life. And it’s – you know, this is not where I thought I’d be at 33.

I would have transcribed the Unidentified Person’s 2pbfV as hyphenated family-plan rather than separated family plan, but either way the compound verb has been extracted from the compound noun family planning, literally ‘planning for a family’, but specialized as in sense a of this NOAD entry:

compound noun family planning: [a] the practice of controlling the number of children in a family and the intervals between their births, particularly by means of artificial contraception or voluntary sterilization: family-planning clinics. [b] artificial contraception: the morning-after pill should never be used as a regular method of family planning.

Planning for a family involves buying infant supplies, furnishing bedrooms for kids, asking for advice on toilet training, re-arranging your work schedule to make a space for child care, and much more, but the conventionalized compound noun family planning covers just one tiny bit of the whole enterprise. And the compound verb family-plan inherits that very specialized sense: ‘control the number of children in a family and the intervals between their births, particularly by means of artificial contraception or voluntary sterilization’. Which is exactly what Abigail Disney’s Unidentified Person is concerned about.

I’m pretty sure I’d never heard or seen the compound verb family-plan before the Abigail Disney interview. But I was able to understand it as the speaker intended because I knew the compound noun family planning in its specialized sense and also knew about back-forming compound verbs from synthetic compound nouns in –ing.

Resources: there is a Page on this blog with an index of my 2pbfV inventory, keyed to the Page of 2pbfV examples. The 2pbfV family-plan will be #155 in the inventory of examples and will appear in the index under its head V, PLAN.

Denver Riggleman’s phrase-final truncation. From 9/27, in Katy Tur’s MSNC interview with former US congressman Denver Riggleman about a phone call between the White House and a rioter on 1/6/21:

(#2) Riggleman: Some people like me, some don’t. I really don’t give a rat’s.

Apparently, Riggleman has truncated not give a rat’s ass in other interviews over the years; it seems to be his way of saying “I don’t care” when he’s feeling combative. It serves the goal of brevity, to be sure, but more important, it provides him with a way of conveying the vulgar minimizer (Paul Postal’s term) rat’s ass, with its macho pow!, while decorously avoiding its vulgarity — the end effect being to ostentatiously flaunt that vulgarity.

But of course that only works if you know the vulgar NPI (negative polarity item) give a rat’s ass, in a family with give a damn, give a shit, give a fuck, and a number of others; see my 11/2/09 posting “a rat’s ass”. And if you recognize the strategy of omitting the end of a formulaic expression, supposing that you’ll be able to fill in the missing stuff.

Such truncations don’t have to involve taboo vocabulary. Some examples from my files:

59. give or take ‘more or less, give or take a bit’ – heard on tv in something like: “There were 20 people there, give or take”

61. for a split ‘for a split second’ – Firefly S1 E11: … “after I took my eyes off you for a split”

62. swear on a stack ‘swear on a stack of bibles’ – Law & Order S4 E4: “Everyone swears on a stack: perfect marriage”

But truncations have an extra value when they allow taboo vocabulary to be suppressed (sometimes ostentatiously).

54. a snowball’s chance [in hell] – in Law & Order episode, viewed in re-runs 8/3/15: “You got no more than a snowball’s chance”

55. not give a flying [fuck] – in my 3/7/10 posting “Nonce truncations”

And also (this is where we came in):

83. not give a rat’s [ass] – “… and about a third don’t give a rat’s” (Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware interviewed on tv on 5/8/19 about his constituents’ attitudes towards the President’s actions)

(My truncation files are not, at the moment, available on-line, because they include truncations in initial, medial, and final position, with a number of different motivations. If I ever get 10 or so hours of time to edit the files, I’ll post them here. But, frankly, at this stage in my life, that’s unlikely to happen; so you’re probably only going to get occasional samples like those above.)

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