January 19, 2004

Derivation and Disparagement

Mark Liberman's mention of Audhumlan Conspiracy's puzzle about when adjectives can double as vocative nouns (as in "Come here, gorgeous") put me in mind of another adjective-to-noun conundrum I've never been able to come up with a plausible solution for. This involves the names of social groups that are derived from monosyllabic adjectives, like black and gay. These words are routinely used used as bare plurals without any stylistic or affectual import:

Blacks (gays) have generally opposed the new policy.

Many blacks (gays) find the depictions offensive.

What's odd is that the words sound either disparaging or condescending when they're used in quantified NP's like the following (where the dollar sign denotes a usage that many would find socially unacceptable):

$ There are only two blacks (gays) on the faculty.

$ Would you object to having a black (a gay) for a roomate?

$ He's the first black (gay) to serve on the city council.

Note in fact that the same effect is present with white -- "Southern whites vote Republican" is fine; "She's dating a white" is odd at best. But the effect is absent with denotatively equivalent group terms that aren't derived from monosyllabic adjectives, like African American, Caucasian, or even the de-adjectival homosexual. (Note also that this effect is independent of the various complications associated with Jew and Jewish, which people seem to want to bring up when I ask about this. "Many Jews are opposed to the plan" is no better or worse than "There are only two Jews on the board.")

I have no idea why this should be, and am not even sure how to characterize the exact quantificational differences that are relevant here (it doesn't seem to come down exactly to a difference between individual- and kind-denoting terms). But given the nature of the regularity, the effect surely follows from the interaction of the semantics associated with this derivational process with some semantic entailment of these quantifiers rather than from an arbitrary convention. It's a mystery to me why things should fall out this way, but a tip of the hat to anyone who can nail this.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at January 19, 2004 12:55 PM