July 19, 2006

Compound Interest

I thought of my post on the political significance of object+pres. participle (O-PP) compound adjectives as a kind of throwaway -- just noting what seemed to me the obvious point that the right has more-or-less owned the trope of using these compounds to brand liberalism as a lifestyle choice. As exemplified by, oh, I don't know -- say the title of my new book Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show.

As it happened, the observation set a lot of bloggers to keyboarding. Kevin Drum asked his readers if they couldn't come up with a set of (clean) O-PP compounds to do the work that these were doing for the other side, and engendered a surprising spate of responses. And several other bloggers offered evidence to suggest that the generalization was bogus, in tones of triumph that swelled in direct proportion to the absurdity of the claims they were ascribing to me. At the risk of belaboring the point, then, allow me to me clarify.

For one thing, I was hardly claiming, as Trevor seems to assume, that the contemporary right had invented the O-PP compound, when it actually goes back to Shakespeare!!!! Well, yeah, I did sort of know that. Nor was I suggesting, what's only slightly less absurd, that conservatives had invented the practice of stringing compounds like these together as insults. That's what Zachary Roth seems to assume, in the course of wondering whether I have ever actually talked to a black person, while pointing out that this pattern of insults is a longstanding feature of black oral culture. (Roth cites an exchange of ethnic insults in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" in which characters exchange ethnic insults like "pizza-slinging," "gold-chain wearing," "Goya bean eating," and the like.) And Jack Fenner wrote to ask if there was a connection between the right's pattern and extended adjectival phrases like the one Wesley Snipes produces in "White Men Can't Jump":

"Oh man shut your anorexic malnutrition tapeworm-having overdose on Dick Gregory Bohemian diet-drinking ass up. Leave me alone!"

There are all familiar patterns, but there's no real connection, nor need there be. The fact is that the use of these compounds as insults is neither a conservative invention nor a modern black one. Really it's so obvious that it didn't have to be invented at all. The syntactic pattern was probably all of 20 minutes old when somebody took it into his head to call somebody else a goat-fucking churl.

What I had in mind involved a specific trope rather than a whole construction. In modern political discourse, the right has made a point of redrawing the liberal-conservative distinction in terms of "bogus differences in consumer culture," as I put it. So it makes sense, I suggested, that the right should "seize on the object+participle construction, whose function to turn activities into attributes -- politically speaking, that is, you are what you do (or more accurately, what you drive, drink, or otherwise consume)." Which is to say that compounds of the general form "[product]+[consuming]" or that name other kinds of socially charged activities (like body piercing) are going to come far more commonly from the right than the left.

In fact when you look at the compounds of this form that Drum's readers offered as insults for the right, the vast majority of them had to do either with actions by Republican politicians (lies-leaking, bribe-taking, law-breaking, health-care denying, rich-serving, Constitution-erasing, privacy-invading and the like), or with particular incidents (face-shooting, oxy-raving, Schiavo-diagnosing). Only a handful, like Hummer-driving, involved characterizing Republicans or conservative voters in social or broadly "cultural" terms. And by-and-large, the latter are far less frequent than the equivalent descriptions of liberals.

For example, Google turns up just 19 hits for "Hummer-driving" before conservative(s) or Republican(s) against 270 for Volvo-driving" with liberal(s) or Democrat(s), and even when you throw pickups and trucks into the conservative mix, the disproportion is still overwhelming. More generally, Google estimates 54,800 hits for eating and drinking before liberal(s), the vast majority preceded by words like cheese, Granola, quiche, white wine and so forth, against only 1260 for the same words before conservative(s), as in meat-eating, and beer-drinking. (Syntactic ambiguities preclude doing the same counts with driving, watching, loving, and other verbs that can select animate objects -- "driving liberals" could be part of the larger phrases "Volvo-driving liberals" or "driving liberals insane.") And after hand-screening false hits (as when a sentence-boundary intrudes between eating and liberal, say) the comparable figures for Nexis U.S. papers are 38 to 2.

Does that mean liberals never use these compounds to insult conservatives? Of course not. As I noted in the original post, liberals do use phrases like Bible-thumping and warmongering of conservatives -- the last maybe not the best example to have chosen, both because it doesn't involve a lifestyle characterization and because it's no longer semantically compositional ("Mongered any good wars lately?").

In that connection, Julian Sanchez notes that those compounds, like gay-bashing, crop up a number of times before conservative on the Web. (Sanchez also mentions self-serving but most linguists would consider that a different type of compound on both syntactic and semantic grounds.) Fair enough, but it isn't clear what the baseline should be here, in the absence of a specific O-PP compound on the other side. "Bible-thumping conservatives" is more common than "religion-hating liberals," for example, but conservatives usually express that idea with the phrase "godless liberals," which wins out over "Bible-thumping conservatives" by about 12-to-1 in Google Groups and 4-to-1 in Nexis. Where conservative and liberal versions of O-PP compounds are in direct competition, the one that characterizes liberals seems to be always more frequent -- on the Web, "America-hating liberals" is about 5 times as frequent as "flag-waving conservatives," for example. Draw the generalization appropriately, in short, and it holds up pretty good.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at July 19, 2006 10:30 PM