October 29, 2005

Coordinative naming botches

I have noticed while walking about Cambridge, Massachusetts, that it has at least two institutions with names that result from mergers that took place in their pasts and ended up being close to ungrammatical. One is the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. Another, in the news this weekend, is the Brigham and Women's Hospital. Both these coordinate names sound strikingly weird to me. It is worth trying to diagnose the syntactic reasons.

Cambridge Rindge and Latin is the only public high school in Cambridge, and I think its name sounds wrong because it coordinates a proper-name modifier associated with the name of the founder (Frederick Hastings Rindge) with a modifier that appears to designate a subject matter taught (the Latin language). So it's odd in the same way that it would be odd if a place called Bagley Farm merged with a place called The Dairy Farm and the result was called "the Bagley and Dairy Farm"; or if the two units at Harvard called the Kennedy School of Government and the Harvard Divinity School were to merge into something called "the Kennedy and Divinity School". (That one looks bad enough that mentally I place an asterisk in front of it.)

Cambridge Rindge and Latin resulted from a merger of the Rindge School of Technical Arts with the Cambridge High and Latin School. But of course the latter is itself a coordinative naming botch; the Cambridge High and Latin School was formed as a result of an earlier merger of Cambridge English High School and Cambridge Latin School. "High and Latin" is a coordination of an adjectival modifier with a proper-noun modifier, and sounds just as weird. (We're lucky we didn't get "Cambridge Rindge, High, and Latin", a coordinative amalgamation of all three.)

Brigham and Women's Hospital was in the news over the last few days because Luk Van Parijs, the MIT associate professor who has just been fired for faking data in several immunology papers, did some of his research there.

The linguistic problem with "Brigham and Women's" seems even worse than "Rindge and Latin" or "Kennedy and Divinity" to me. It's a coordination of a proper name modifier (as in the underlined part of London pride, Budapest Restaurant, or California girls) with a genitive noun phrase determiner (as in the underlined part of Ken's pride, Alice's Restaurant, or our girls). In general, it seems to me that you should expect any attempt to do this kind of coordination to make something crunchingly ungrammatical. See what you think (the square brackets indicate the coordinate constituents):

*[London and Mary's] pride is what you're dealing with.
*Let's go to [Budapest and Alice's] Restaurant.
*I like both [California and our] girls.

I think they should have called in a linguist in when they were discussing these mergers. You don't want your institution to get stuck with an ungrammatical name. It's the same as when you are coining a new word that you hope will catch on, or making an assertion about what phrases occur in current discourse. Language Log Plaza is happy to provide lingustic consultants on such matters. Our fees are reasonable, and our linguistic taste is guaranteed: if there are any problems with the new name we create, we are prepared to give you your old name back.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 29, 2005 08:22 PM