December 26, 2004

Ginger Snap

In my post on gingerly, I suggested that one curiosity of the adverbial use is people's reluctance to back-form an adjective ginger. Not so fast, emails Charles Belov, who reports that a Google search on ginger steps -- which of course I should have done myself before issuing my pronouncement -- turns up a number of instances of an adjectival use:

In the Night Kitchen... marks Santen's first solo foray, taking a few ginger steps away from his longtime collaborative project Birddog.

Lack of walls and throngs of gawking passengers attracted a host of children, initially in curiosity and later with hesitant, ginger steps into participation.

The songwriting is studied and careful, guitars taking ginger steps through the melodies.

Since this use of ginger is considered obsolete by the OED, these instances suggest a re-invention via back-formation rather than a survival of the old word. And for these writers, gingerly is pretty clearly just a common-or-garden adverb formed in -ly. But the adjective is still relatively rare. A Nexis major papers search on "gingerly way," "gingerly fashion," or "gingerly manner" turns up 124 hits; a search on the same phrases with ginger turns up just one, from the Washington Post (2/15/1988):

In a very ginger way on Iowa caucus night, just before a commercial, Rather told viewers, "Vice President Bush declined our request to be interviewed on this broadcast."

It seems fair to conclude that for most people who use gingerly as an adverb, it has the distinction of being the only manner adverb formed in -ly (well, make that the only one I can think of) that isn't formed on an adjectival stem -- that is, unless you assume as I do that the word is really a haplologized version of gingerlily. Not a reason to condemn it out of hand, but I'm still going to give it a pass.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at December 26, 2004 01:32 PM