February 19, 2004

Three is a trend

The fad of using camera cell phones to take up-the-skirt photos of women in public places (often on escalators or from below staircases) is known as upskirting. Washington state tried to make it illegal, but was shocked recently to find that its State Supreme Court had ruled it (though "disgusting and reprehensible") perfectly legal under the state constitution if done in a public place.

The emergence of this technologically-assisted voyeurism should not surprise us (show me a technology that hasn't found new and unintended uses in the hands of male jerks). But the word upskirting is more interesting. It has a mildly surprising structure: It's a gerund-participle formed on a compound verb base where the compound consists of a preposition and a noun, interpreted as preposition + object. These are quite rare.

In general they are not productively available. That is, people don't just casually refer to jogging with weights as "withweighting", or to looking things up in books as "inbooking", or to flying small planes under suspension bridges as "underbridging", and expect to be understood without explanation.

Lest anyone suggest that downsizing is a relevant example, let me point that it doesn't: it does not derive its meaning from a preposition phrase "down the size".

Yet one by one, quite slowly, a small number of P + N compounds are being added to the English vocabulary. An example that does have the structure I'm talking about is overlanding, meaning travelling overland (usually in an all-terrain vehicle). Another (referring to making descents of cliffs or office block walls on ropes) is downwalling. (There is a film called Downwalling, directed by Lubomir Slavik and Jaromir Zid, produced by LUJA Studio in the Czech Republic. It was shown at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival.)

I'd predict that more such compounds are to come. One is an exception, two are a couple of anomalies, but three is a trend.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 19, 2004 04:56 PM