February 10, 2007

Birth of a Sentence

My role as facilitator of stage 11 of the Language Anger Management course reminded C.J. Croy of the Something Positive strip for 8/25/2006:

PeeJeeShou's explanation of "grammar nazi" to Cab's kid is missing a relevant generalization: "X nazi" has become a general-purpose term for "fanatic about X", as the OED entry for nazi suggests:

2. a. In extended use: a believer in or sympathizer with the aims or doctrines of Nazism or any similar doctrines. Also more generally: a person holding extreme racist (esp. anti-Semitic) or authoritarian views, or behaving in a brutal and bigoted manner.

b. hyperbolically. A person who is perceived to be authoritarian, autocratic, or inflexible; one who seeks to impose his or her views upon others. Usu. derogatory.

1982 P. J. O'ROURKE in Inquiry 15 Mar. 8/3 The Safety Nazis advocate gun control, vigorous exercise, and health foods.
1995 Independent 3 Nov. (Suppl.) 8/2 According to Hutchins, current fitness theory is peddled by ‘nazis’. Aerobics Nazis.
2000 Minx Aug. 71/2, I learned to be more open and not such a Nazi in the studio.

The wiktionary entry points out something that the OED misses, which is that the usage is not only derogatory but also offensive to some people, on the grounds that it trivializes the crimes of the real-life Nazis:

3. (slang) A person considered unfairly oppressive or needlessly strict. (Considered an offensive usage)

I tried to get into the club, but the door nazi threw me out.

Both the OED and wiktionary seem to me to miss something else, though it's implicit in their examples: this sense of nazi is mostly used as the head of a noun compound, [X nazi] = "fanatic about X".

And if you search the web, you can find examples for just about any value of X you look for. Well, a considerable number of them, anyhow:

sorry that ya didnt get in last night. they are total shoe nazis and theres nada i can swing about the dress code.
If you came to school like that, they'd send you home till it was changed-- hair nazis.
I looked forward to getting that first paragraph past the comma nazis.
Looks like the Food Nazis in New York City are moving to ban trans-fat in the preparation of foods in restaurants.
The world was entirely too full of coffee nazis these days—coffee was about individual taste, and no one should let anyone else tell her what to like.
It turns out (as he explained it to me) there are tea Nazis who look just like you and me, but are very particular about how the ingredients for their cuppa get into implied vessel.
Mispronounce this and incur the ire of pronunciation Nazis everywhere.
Yes, she was a full-on Christmas tree Nazi.
but company of heroes is fucking sick i own that game the only flaw is my mom enters videogame nazi mode sometimes when im actually playing good players
Get a fingernail Nazi to look at your nails, and make sure it's someone whose opinion you respect, and someone you want to please.

I first heard this usage in the form "surf nazis", in California in the mid-1960s. According to the wikipedia entry for the band Surf Punks,

The term "surf punk" was a generational adaptation of the term "surf nazi" which was in wide use in the early days of the sport in the 60s and 70s also used tongue-in-cheek to describe people who were fanatically dedicated to their sport.

I recall some inconclusive arguments among teenagers about whether any of the "surf nazis" actually had any political or cultural affinities with the ideology of the Third Reich. My impression at the time was that the term was mostly a culturally-empty evocation of an available epitome of fanaticism.

Of course, the spread of the Compound-Noun Nazi phenomenon during the past decade was propelled by Seinfeld's "Soup Nazi", who first appeared in 1995.

Anyhow, PeeJee also missed the (very minor) phenomena of grammar communists, spelling anarchists, and language libertarians, among other factions. And the new kids on the fanaticism block, the Noun-Compound Taliban:

It's what works for you, after all, not the Fashion Taliban.
We used to call them the Yellow Jackets, Ski Nazis, Fun Busters, etc. Now, they are the Ski Taliban.

So of course we have the Grammar Taliban:

Get a grip people, we don't need no stinkin' Grammar Taliban 'round here.

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 10, 2007 08:35 AM