Archive for the ‘Derivation’ Category

Stilettoed on the balcony

August 3, 2022

The killing of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri by a targeted U.S. drone strike (taking him down as he stood on a balcony) over the weekend in Afghanistan was described by an MSNBC commentator yesterday morning as

a stiletto strike:  with the N1 + N2 compound N stiletto strike ‘sudden (military) attack resembling a stiletto (in being very narrowly focused lethal weaponry)’; the sense of the N2 strike here is NOAD‘s 2 [a] a sudden attack, typically a military one

Possibly it was stiletto airstrike; it went by very fast, I haven’t seen another broadcast of it, and it’s not yet available on-line, so I can’t check — but I am sure of the N stiletto and the N strike and the intent of the commentator to commend the pinpoint accuracy of the operation.

It seems that the metaphor has been used occasionally in military circles for some years, but very rarely outside these circles, so that it came with the vividness of a fresh, rather than conventional, metaphor — but while it worked well for me (evoking the slim, pointed, lethal daggers of assassins), it might not have been so effective with others, whose mental image of a stiletto is the heel of a fashionable women’s shoe (slim and pointed,  but alluring rather than lethal).

Yes, the two senses (plus a few others that I won’t discuss here) are historically related, with the dagger sense the older and, in a series of steps, the source of the shoe sense. But of course ordinary speakers don’t know that, nor should they be expected to (such information is the province of specialists, historical linguists and lexicographers); what they know is how stiletto is used in their social world, and that’s likely to involve trendy footwear rather than medieval weaponry.


The pickle slicer joke The pickle slicer joke

July 31, 2022

On this blog, a Bob Richmond comment on my 7/29 posting “Many a pickle packs a pucker”, with an old dirty joke that turns on the line “I stuck my dick in the pickle slicer” — with Bob noting, “I’m sure Arnold can provide an appropriate grammatical analysis”. The hinge of the joke is a pun on pickle slicer, which is ambiguous between ‘a device for slicing pickles’ and ‘someone who slices pickles (esp. as a job)’. You don’t need a syntactician to tell you that, but what I can tell you is that this isn’t some isolated fact about the expression pickle slicer, but is part of a much larger pattern that a linguist like me can bring to explicit awareness for you, so that you can appreciate something of the system of English that you (in some sense) know, but only tacitly, implicitly.



April 4, 2022

Today’s morning name, the C[ount] noun non-profit, as in this real-life example (lifted from this very blog):

Partners of the Common Cents Lab are tech companies, banks, credit unions, non-profits, and government organizations

And in this NOAD entry:

adj. nonprofit [AZ: very frequently non-profit]: [attributive] not making or conducted primarily to make a profit: charities and other nonprofit organizations. noun mainly North American a nonprofit organization: I spent the next six years working for small nonprofits.

(With clearly C noun occurrences boldfaced)


Fiberglass football

November 14, 2021

The Zippy strip of 11/8, in which our Pinhead confronts the hulking fiberglass figure of Football Man (looming in front of the Moreland Tire Co., whose products Football Man is presumably exalting:

(#1) Whatever Moreland products Football Man is hawking, he’s also exalting football as quintessentially American — so if Zippy is no fan of the game, he’s no American either — and as a (dark) metaphor for life (next up in the game of life: brain damage)

Having spent 29 years as a college professor in Columbus OH, I have a lot to say about football, very little of it pleasant, but this is probably not the time to air my grievances.

So put that aside, and ask the questions that almost every Zippy strip provokes: who are these guys? what is this place?


Reader, Writer, Arithmeticker

April 20, 2021

The 3/24 One Big Happy, in which Ruthie’s brother Joe (rebelling against school, after his discovery of appalling “chapter books” — all words, no pictures!) goes on a spree of –er words:

The extremely versatile N-forming derivational suffix –er, with N bases like arithmetic and V bases like read (including, in the last panel, the problematic base tidy up, a V of the form V + Prt)


The columnist

April 15, 2021

Today’s Zippy strip, with an unconventional sense of columnist:


Not someone who writes a column for publication, but a collector of columns, the architectural features — like a philatelist, but with pillars.

But then the suffix –ist is extraordinarily multifunctional.


All about -ette

March 28, 2021

Diminutive, feminine (in some sense), both. In the One Big Happy strip of 3/4, in my comics feed on 3/36:


In modern English — that’s important — the suffix -ette has two relatively productive — that’s also important — functions: as a literal diminutive, referring to a small version of the referent of the base to which –ette is attached (“diminutive” suffixes can have a variety of other functions, notably as expressing affection towards this referent); and as a literal feminine, referring to a female version of the referent of the base to which –ette is attached (“feminine” suffixes can have a variety of other functions, notably as markers of grammatical gender (ggender), as opposed to natural, or sex, gender (ngender); English doesn’t have ggender).

The big generalization about modern English is that –ette attached to bases with inanimate reference (like disk) tends to have the literally diminutive function (diskette), while attached to bases with human (or, more generally, higher-animate) reference (like usher), –ette tends to have the literally feminine function (usherette). Novel formations follow the generalization: a spoonette would be a small spoon, not a spoon in female shape, or a spoon intended for use by girls and women; while a guardette would be a female guard (perhaps viewed dismissively or derogatorily), not a miniature guard.

Ruthie’s brother Joe apparently fails to appreciate the big –ette generalization, and takes a bachelorette to be a miniature bachelor, rather than the female counterpart of a bachelor (in Joe’s terms, a grown-up girl — a woman — who isn’t married yet).


Scientific and non-scientific -ist

March 10, 2021

Yesterday, in my posting “And you thought -ize was complicated”, a Tom Gauld cartoon showing the great semantic versatility of the suffix –ist. And now, from the 2020 collection Department of Mind-Blowing Theories: Science Cartoons [from New Scientist magazine] by Tom Gauld, –ist as used for names of scientific fields vs. for a variety of other meanings (while showing considerable morphophonological variety in these words).

(#1) The cover of Mind-Blowing


And you thought -ize was complicated

March 9, 2021

… but that was before you looked at –ist. The spur for this observation is Tom Gauld’s cartoon “The Characters in my New Play”, originally in the Guardian on 3/14/15, since reprinted in his 2017 collection Baking With Kafka:

Gauld starts with the play-relevant term protagonist, then moves to the falsely analogous term antagonist, then takes off on a flight of fancy through the vast –ist world.



March 1, 2021

From the Stanford Daily (the student newspaper) on 3/1/21: “‘The work is not done’: Students react to AAAS departmentalization recommendation” by John Okhiulu, Kemi Oyewole and Darion Wallace:

On Feb. 22, the Framework Task Force recommended Stanford’s African and African-American Studies program be departmentalized. Following a half-century of student activism, Black undergraduate and graduate students share their reactions to the news.

This is departmentalize ‘make departmental, give departmental status to, make into a department’ — which ought to be a perfectly ordinary causative use of this verb, but struck me as a use I hadn’t experienced before. And possibly I hadn’t, to judge from the evidence of an assortment of dictionaries, none of which reports this use.