May 18, 2005

Fasten = Grecian?

Andrew Sullivan comments on the NYT's decision to charge $50/year for on-line access to columnists:

By sectioning off their op-ed columnists and best writers, they are cutting them off from the life-blood of today's political debate: the free blogosphere. Inevitably, fewer people will link to them; fewer will read them; their influence will wane faster than it has already. The blog is already becoming a rival to the dated op-ed column format as a means of communicating opinion journalism. My bet is that the NYT's retrogressive move will only fasten the decline of op-ed columnists' influence.

I think he's right about the effects of the decision. But will the NYT's move really "fasten" their columnists' decline? If so, what will it be fastened to?

Sullivan apparently meant that charging for access will make print columnists' decline happen fast+er, and thus will fast+en it, just as making something deep+er deep+ens it, or making it dark+er dark+ens it, or making it moist+er moist+ens it.

However, making verbs from adjectives by adding +en is not a productive derivational process. You can't hotten or coolen your drink, or louden your ipod. The Springfield Theme Song "Embiggen his soul", and the town motto "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man", are creative jokes that embiggened the English vocabulary. (Especially because embiggen is one of the few words in English involving both a prefix and a suffix with the same basic form...)

And though fasten does exist as a deadjectival verb in English, it's from the wrong sense of fast, the one that means "fixed firmly in place". (The "rapid" sense of fast developed from the adverbial form of the same word, apparently -- that 's another story, though one that's worth telling in connection with the development of unpacked.)

I'm not trying to pick on Andrew Sullivan, who is a first-rate writer and needs to make no apologies for his command of the English language. In this case, he generalized a limited morphological pattern to a case where it's not sanctioned by history or current usage. This is something that almost all of us do from time to time. It's a symptom of the fact that we have brains that are capable of learning patterns and applying them in new ways. But when George Bush does it, one of Jacob Weisberg's staffers picks it up and publishes it as the latest Bushism.

[Note: I guess it's possible that Sullivan really meant fasten, in a sense like "cause to come to be fixed firmly in position". I doubt it, though: I think he meant to write hasten, and "fasten" slipped out of his fingers because of the association with "cause to happen faster". ]

[Update: John McChesney-Young pointed out by email that the key 'f' is only two over from the key 'h' on a standard qwerty keyboard; and 'f' is touch typed with the index finger of the left hand, while 'h' is produced with the index finger of the right hand; all of which makes a slip of hastenfasten easier. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 18, 2005 12:42 PM