June 16, 2004

Dysfunctional Shift

There's an interesting historical sidelight to Geoff Pullum's "observations about the slippery syntax of "one nation under God." The phrase is actually a hapax legomenon, at least in the role of locative adjunct, a point I made in a "Fresh Air" piece I did on the pledge that appears in my book Going Nucular.

"Under God" was originally taken from the Gettysburg Address, but Lincoln used it adverbially: "...this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom" (i.e., "under God" modifies have). But in the Pledge, the phrase was somehow changed to a modifier of the noun nation. And a very odd one, at that -- this is the only place in English that "under God" is used in this way. People don't ordinarily go around saying things like "The U.S. has been under God since its founding" or "Organizations under God will benefit from the faith-based initiative measure."

The uniqueness of the construction leaves its meaning up for grabs. Is that the under of "under heaven," the under of "under the marketing manager," or the under of "under orders"? Does it mean that we believe in God or that we report to Him or that we have His personal attention? It's anyone's guess.

It may be that the functional shift of "under God" was simply the result of a misreading of the Gettysburg Address, but if so it was a serendipitous one. What better way to signal the doctrinal neutrality of the state than to express our official deism so obscurely?

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at June 16, 2004 02:30 AM