June 16, 2004

Okay, make that "half-assed legomenon"

Mark may have " found citations in Victorian poetry for the use of "under God" as a noun modifier, but they're pretty thin on the ground in Modern English prose. A Google search turns up virtually no instances of "under God" applied to nouns like schools, physicians, organizations, lawyers, doctors, physicians, and the like (which would be parallel to the poetic examples that Mark mentions), apart from those that clearly involve explicit or implicit references to the wording of the Pledge.

It's true that "under God" sometimes appears in verse and religious writing used adjectivally. That may be because "I am under God" has sometimes been offered as a translation of Joseph's remark in Genesis 50:19, Ne timeatis: numquid enim loco Dei sum? (though "in the place of God" is more standardly used). But it clearly isn't part of modern English idiom.

I have a problem, too, with Bill's suggestion that the meaning of "under God" should be clear here even if the phrase is a hapax legomenon, since phrasal meaning is compositional. But if the meaning of "under God" here could really be deduced compositionally, why isn't the phrase regularly used in that way -- why don't we see frequent references to "an organization under God," "We're all under God around here," and so forth? The explanation could only be either that "under God" as used in the Pledge expresses a compositional meaning that is somehow appropriate only to this unique context -- which is surely not what the people who inserted the phrase had in mind -- or that the phrase is perceived as an idiom that's used only in this context. In the latter case, it's no different from ordinary single-word hapax legomena, whose meaning can't be adduced from the single context in which it appears.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at June 16, 2004 01:59 PM