May 02, 2004

Indigoed in Pearlspace

Geoff Pullum's spectacularly negative review of The Da Vinci Code makes me wonder, again, whether someone in the publishing industry might have opened a portal to a parallel universe, where stylistic and linguistic norms have developed a bit differently from the way that they have in ours. I first had this disturbing thought while reading another popular recent thriller, The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. I enjoyed this book's plot, I think -- but I'm not sure, because once or twice on every page, I got distracted by its language.

There are a couple of examples in the book's first two sentences:

John Kurtz, the chief of the Boston police, breathed in some of his heft for a better fit between the two chambermaids. On one side, the Irish woman who had discovered the body was blubbering and wailing prayers unfamiliar (because they were Catholic) and unintelligible (because she was blubbering) that prickled the hair in Kurtz's ear; on the other side was her soundless and despairing niece.

The use of "breathed in some of his heft" in place of the more commonplace "sucked in his stomach" didn't faze me, but the idea that the woman's prayers "prickled the hair in Kurtz's ear" brought me up short. In our universe, hairs on the back of one's neck are often said to prickle, as a way of describing the response of arrector pili muscles to adrenaline; and old men get hair growing in their ears... but does ear hair prickle? and if so, would blubbering and wailing make the hair in the ear on just one side prickle? I'm not sure, but at this point I had sailed through another couple of paragraphs without registering their content, and had to go back and start over.

For the first few dozen pages, I figured that Pearl was just trying to give his prose a 19th-century tone by using awkward constructions, making up unexpected figures of speech, and substituting rare words for common ones. But then I came across a phrase on p. 45 that suggested a more sinister explanation:

In the lobby of the police station in Court Square, Nicholas Rey looked up from his notepad, squinting at the gaslight after a long engagement with a sheet of paper. A hefty bear of an indigoed uniformed man, swaying a small paper parcel as if it were an infant, waited in front of his desk.

"An indigoed uniformed man"? Now, I'm a linguistic libertarian, but that seems flat-out ungrammatical to me.

In the first place, the past participle indigoed is unexpected, independent of context. Indigoed is unexpected partly because indigo, in our universe, is used as a noun or adjective but not as a verb; and it's also unexpected because the adjective indigo would work fine here, if a fancier word for "blue" is needed.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines indigo the noun as

1a. Any of various shrubs or herbs of the genus Indigofera in the pea family, having odd-pinnate leaves and usually red or purple flowers in axillary racemes. b. A blue dye obtained from these plants or produced synthetically. 2. Any of several related plants, especially those of the genera Amorpha or Baptisia. 3. The hue of that portion of the visible spectrum lying between blue and violet, evoked in the human observer by radiant energy with wavelengths of approximately 420 to 450 nanometers; a dark blue to grayish purple blue.

and goes on to observe that indigo can also be an adjective, with the obvious range of meanings. The AHD doesn't recognized that indigo can be a verb -- and the OED doesn't either -- because (in our universe) it isn't one very often. Of course, in English any noun can be verbed, and so Google's index does have 26 examples of indigoed to go with its 3,350,000 mentions of indigo. These including someone who is worried about whether indigoed henna will oxidize, Neil who is "pretty much Indigoed Out" over the Indigo Girls, and some deeply purple "poetry" where someone's "lovemaking" is described as "[r]eigning unaltered within the passion of deep-indigoed space".

But what we have here is not just a bit of over-empurpled prose -- Pearl's use of indigo in the phrase "indigoed uniformed man" has got a more serious problem. It's not the man who is indigoed (or indigo, or just plain "blue"), it's his uniform. The structure of this phrase has to be something like

       (((indigoed uniform) +ed) man)
            ADJ     N       AFF   N  

In our universe, English pretty freely allows phrases of the form MODIFIER NOUN1+"ed" NOUN2, taken to mean "NOUN2 with (a) MODIFIER NOUN1". Here are a few examples googled for the occasion:

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
long haired hamster
white skinned potato
big trunked tree
small-brained reptiles
scarlet-cloaked angel
clean uniformed workers
black-shoed bohos

The problem is that the MODIFIER can't be a past participle:

*pressed uniformed policeman
*burned nosed tourists
*polished-shoed dancers

This is not just my opinion, it's also Google's. At least, I can't find any hits at all for obvious guesses like "burned nosed", "sunburned nosed", "tanned legged", etc. And "purpled prose" gets 83 ghits, "purple prosed" gets 137, but "purpled prosed" is unknown to Google.

Now, The Dante Club's front matter tells us that "Matthew Pearl graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude in English and American literature in 1997, and in 2000 from Yale Law School". I ask you, is it likely that a person with that background would be so insensitive to the norms of the English language?

No, a much more plausible hypothesis is that Pearl graduated from a slightly different Harvard University, in a universe slightly different from our own, and read a body of English and American literature that is also just a bit different. In particular, I hypothesize that in Pearl's universe, indigoed became a commonplace word for "blue" back in the 17th century, and by now is just an underived adjective. A parallel example in our universe would be bespoke, which started out as a past participle of bespeak, but has by now been adopted simply as an adjective, and so occurs in phrases like these:

(link) ... Duncan Palmer, general manager of the Sukhothai, is shrugging bespoke-suited shoulders at what would normally be a terrible occupancy rate of 35% ...
(link) Strolling among the bespoke-suited businessmen and their designer-clad wives, the candidate is something of a celebrity.
(link) ... Da Kingdom's Ambassador Extraordinary & Plenipotentiary & Consul General to the United States, a pudgy, bespoke-suited, Habanos-smoking dude named His Royal Highness Prince Bandar bin Sultan...
( link) ... bespoke-coded dynamic worldwide stockists locator... [via David Nash]

As a result, "indigoed uniformed man" is grammatical in Pearlspace, just like "blue-uniformed man" is for us.

[Note: a few examples of V+ed N+ed N can be found elsewhere in our own universe, as in "dyed haired women" or "braided haired men". Perhaps in Pearl's home universe, this pattern has spread further. I'd hate to revert to the much more prosaic theory that Pearl just systematically substituted fancier words for plainer ones, as one of my friends in junior high school used to do, and didn't notice in this case that the resulting sentence was ungrammatical.]

[Update: Keith Ivey emailed:

Does the rule prohibiting "burned-nosed tourists" really concern past participles in general, or only "-ed" past participles?

I see your point about "bespoke" no longer being a past participle, but Google has examples of similar phrases that do use what seem to me to be past participles:

broken-toothed smile/comb/windows sunken-chested wreck/man/Matthew Broderick shorn-headed madwoman/model/bassist frozen-smiled gals/fiends/car salesmen

There's even one occurrence of "burnt-nosed boarders" and one of "Burnt-nosed Werdläur".

But maybe all of those are a little more adjective-like in context than the average past participle. A chest can be very sunken or a nose very burnt. I don't know that a head can be very shorn, though. Still, there seem to be quite a few occurrences of "closed-mouthed" with various nouns, so maybe there's no difference between "-ed" and other past participles after all. At any rate, I think all of these are less adjective-like than "bespoke", but then there are far more past participles that don't seem to work.

There is probably a section in CGEL that clears all this up -- at least with respect to our universe -- but I haven't been able to find it yet. My only real complaint about that estimable book is that no one seems to have been able to figure out a decent indexing scheme for this kind of thing. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 2, 2004 09:15 AM