December 25, 2004

Gingerly We Roll Along

"It was a gingerly first step," The New York Times' Erik Ekholm and Eric Schmidt wrote on December 24, in a page one article about the return of some residents to Falluja (or "war-ravaged Falluja," to give the city its official name). The sentence caught my attention merely because it used gingerly in what I always assumed to be the correct way, as an adjective. That's so rare as to be newsworthy -- if you do a Nexis search of the previous 50 instances of gingerly in the Times, going back to July 1, 2004, you find it used an adverb every single time:

... a part of its anatomy that, as Mr. Benepe put it gingerly, ''separates the bull from the steer.'' (12/21/04)

...his chubby right foot pressing gingerly into her wrist... (12/20/04)

A couple of cleaning women in white uniforms stepped gingerly around the large potted palms... (12/19/04)

Everyone slurped, adding the sauces or not, gingerly tossing in more bean sprouts for crackle. (12/19/04)

...behavioral economics, which is gingerly stepping away from the economists' orthodoxy that humans are eternally rational... (12/19/04)

Maybe I should throw in the towel on this one, I thought, but then began to wonder whether there was ever actually a towel for me to be holding in the first place.

In defense of the usage, gingerly began its life as an adverb. It was formed from the adjective ginger, "dainty or delicate," and the OED gives citations of its use as an adverb right up to the end of the 19th century -- the adjectival use appeared in the 16th century. And unlike most other adjectives in -ly, like friendly or portly, gingerly has an adverbial meaning, so that it can only apply to nominals denoting actions (like "step" in Ekholm and Schmidt's article); otherwise it requires a clumsy periphrasis like "in a gingerly way." Moreover, Merriam-Webster's exhaustive Dictionary of English Usage gives no indication that anybody has ever objected to the use of the word as an adverb.

But the adjective ginger has been obsolete for a long time, and it's notable that nobody is tempted to back-form it anew, as in "his ginger handling of the question," which is what you'd expect if the adverbial gingerly were really analyzed as composed of the root ginger plus the derivational suffix -ly.

What we seem to have here, rather, is a haplology (or "haplogy," as some linguists can't resist calling it), the process which gave us Latin nutrix in place of the predicted *nutritrix and which leads people to say missippi instead of mississippi. Gingerly is just the way the mental lexicon's gingerlyly comes out on the tongue or the page. That's natural enough, but there's something to be said for insisting that the word be used as an adjective, as one of the small obeisances we make to the capriciousness of grammar. So, kudos to Ekholm and Schmidt, one each.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at December 25, 2004 03:32 PM