June 16, 2004

Never say never

I agree almost entirely with Geoff Pullum and Geoff Nunberg about "one nation, under God".

As Geoff Pullum says, "those extra claims in the appositional NP are secondary" and "you can put your hand on your heart and pledge a valid pledge of loyalty regardless of whether you think the appositionally tacked-on claims are sound".

And as Geoff Nunberg says, "[the] meaning [of the phrase under God] is up for grabs". The American Heritage Dictionary gives many senses for the preposition under that might be relevant: In a lower position or place than; Inferior to in status or rank; Subject to the authority, rule, or control of; Subject to the supervision, instruction, or influence of; Undergoing or receiving the effects of; In view of; because of; With the authorization of.

However, I must respectfully disagree with Geoff Nunberg when he says that "[t]he phrase is actually a hapax legomenon, at least in the role of locative adjunct... this is the only place in English that 'under God' is used in this way." The LION database of English poetry has 144 instances of "under God", and quite a few of them seem to me to be unambiguously locative adjuncts modifying noun phrases. I speak under correction, not being a syntactician; but there have been few contexts in which errors will be noted more quickly than in a widely-read weblog entry in 2004.

One striking example is this hymn verse by John Wesley (1703-1791) and/or Charles Wesley (1707-1788):

Sent forth by Christ indeed,
His true apostles go,
Through earth the joyful tidings spread
Of heaven display'd below:
Physicians under God
They for His patients care,
And all the grace on them bestow'd
To others minister.

In a similar vein, Caroline Sheridan Norton (1808-1877) wrote in The Child of the Islands (1846):

3106 Lo! out of Chaos was the world first called,
3107 And Order out of blank Disorder came.
3108 The feebly-toiling heart that shrinks appalled,
3109 In Dangers weak, in Difficulties tame,
3110 Hath lost the spark of that creative flame
3111 Dimly permitted still on earth to burn,
3112 Working out slowly Order's perfect frame:
3113 Distributed to those whose souls can learn,
3114 As labourers under God, His task-work to discern.

There are several examples in the work of Robert Browning (1812-1899). For instance, in The Ring and the Book (X. The Pope), we have

1454 What is this Aretine Archbishop, this
1455 Man under me as I am under God,

Well, this one is not really an adjunct, as I understand the term, and it is certainly not modifying a noun phrase, at least directly, but rather is used (I guess) as a predicative complement of to be. On the other hand, Geoff did cite "The U.S. has been under God since its founding" as an example of things that "[p]eople don't ordinarily go around saying". And he was right to do so, since the structure under discussion is often effectively a sort of reduction of such a predicative usage.

Continuing with Robert Browning, from In a Balcony (1843) we have

244 ... This eve's the time,
245 This eve intense with yon first trembling star
246 We seem to pant and reach; scarce aught between
247 The earth that rises and the heaven that bends;
248 All nature self-abandoned, every tree
249 Flung as it will, pursuing its own thoughts
250 And fixed so, every flower and every weed,
251 No pride, no shame, no victory, no defeat;
252 All under God, each measured by itself.
253 These statues round us stand abrupt, distinct,
254 The strong in strength, the weak in weakness fixed,
255 The Muse for ever wedded to her lyre,
256 Nymph to her fawn, and Silence to her rose:
257 See God's approval on his universe!

Another R. Browning example, whose construal is perhaps a bit more uncertain, is from the start of An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician:

1 Karshish, the picker-up of learning's crumbs,
2 The not-incurious in God's handiwork
3 (This man's-flesh he hath admirably made,
4 Blown like a bubble, kneaded like a paste,
5 To coop up and keep down on earth a space
6 That puff of vapour from his mouth, man's soul)
7 ---To Abib, all-sagacious in our art,
8 Breeder in me of what poor skill I boast,
9 Like me inquisitive how pricks and cracks
10 Befall the flesh through too much stress and strain,
11 Whereby the wily vapour fain would slip
12 Back and rejoin its source before the term,---
13 And aptest in contrivance (under God)
14 To baffle it by deftly stopping such:---
15 The vagrant Scholar to his Sage at home
16 Sends greeting (health and knowledge, fame with peace)

I take "under God" in this passage to be modifying "contrivance", to express the conventional caveat "inshallah" meaning "God willing". It might be objected that this is an adverbial use -- but it is such a loose sort of adverbial that it could be placed nearly anywhere, including in the pledge. "One nation (God willing) with liberty and justice for all". Thus we've found another interpretive option!

Another example can be found in the monumental but (deservedly?) little-known 1877 work Festus, by Philip James Bailey (1816-1902). This passage is from book XX (and yes, the line numbering apparently begins again from 1 at the start of each book):

13331 How am I answerable for this my soul?
13332 My master, free with me, as fixed with fate;
13333 As a star which moves a certain course in mode
13334 Certain, its liberties are laws; its laws,
13335 Tyrannic, under God. All that we do,
13336 Or bear, is settled from eternity
13337 Endless, beginningless. To act is ours;
13338 Quite sure, not less, all done, or good or ill,
13339 Is for God's glory always, and is ordered.

"Endless, beginningless" indeed.

One last example, from a play in verse by Thomas Lowell Beddoes (1803-1849), entitled Death's Jest-book: Or the Fool's Tragedy. This is from Act II, Scene III:

104 Then all the minutes of my life to come
105 Are sands of a great desart, into which
106 I'm banished broken-hearted. Amala,
107 I must think thee a lovely-faced murderess,
108 With eyes as dark and poisonous as nightshade;
109 Yet no, not so; if thou hadst murdered me,
110 It had been charitable. Thou hast slain
111 The love of thee, that lived in my soul's palace
112 And made it holy: now 'tis desolate,
113 And devils of abandonment will haunt it,
114 And call in Sins to come, and drink with them
115 Out of my heart. But now farewell, my love;
116 For thy rare sake I could have been a man
117 One story under god. Gone, gone art thou.
118 Great and voluptuous Sin now seize upon me,
119 Thou paramour of Hell's fire-crowned king,
120 That showedst the tremulous fairness of thy bosom
121 In heaven, and so didst ravish the best angels.
122 Come, pour thy spirit all about my soul,
123 And let a glory of thy bright desires
124 Play round about my temples. So may I
125 Be thy knight and Hell's saint for evermore.
126 Kiss me with fire: I'm thine.
126 Doth it run so?
127 A bold beginning: we must keep him up to't.

This "bold beginning" will be my ending; there are several other clear cases in the list from LION, and many ambiguous ones, but I'll spare you.

I should add in closing that the title of this post is a bit misleading. Sometimes it's fine to say "never". There certainly are examples of putative English usage that have never occurred and never will occur, other than as slips of the tongue or pen, unless the language changes in basic ways. But if you see a simple grammatical construction or lexical usage happen once, it's probably wrong to say that it's never happened before, and it's almost certainly wrong to say that it'll never happen again.

So a better title would have been "Never say hapax". At least not with respect to a language as a whole, as opposed to a fixed corpus, in which there will always be plenty of hapax legomena.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 16, 2004 10:25 AM