February 15, 2007

Astronaut drives 900 miles wearing...

When NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak was arrested on Feb. 5 and charged with the attempted murder of her romantic rival, we were treated to nonstop media coverage of the bizarre story. Perhaps the bizarrest detail of all was that, according to the arrest affidavit, Nowak admitted to wearing a diaper on the 900-mile drive from Houston to Orlando so that she wouldn't have to stop along the way. In the wake of this mediathon, an interesting morphological question occurred to Jan Freeman. Sometimes Nowak was described as "wearing a diaper" on her journey, and other times as "wearing diapers." A current search on Google News suggests that "wearing diapers" outnumbers "wearing a diaper" about 3-to-1 in coverage of the Nowak story. But presumably Nowak wore just a single diaper during the trip (or else what would be the point, really?). So what's up with the prevalence of plural diapers for a single item?

The first thing to note is how limited the contexts are in which diapers can refer to a single garment:

She was wearing diapers.
She was in diapers.
She had diapers on.
She put on/took off her diapers.
She dirtied her diapers.

Clearly, the only frames that work are ones where the diaper is being worn by someone — a baby, an astronaut, whoever. Note too that in all of these examples, the morphologically singular "(a) diaper" would also fit, so the plurally marked form is not obligatory. The same also holds for the equivalent British English term: singular nappy and plural nappies are both available for use in these contexts. Well-known diaper brand names also seem to follow this pattern: Pampers, Huggies, and Depends (for adult incontinence — Nowak's brand of choice?) all can take the ostensibly plural -s form even when referring to a single worn diaper. (Pampers and Huggies are already branded in the plural, while the Depend brand name is more often heard with an -s in frames like those above.)

Viewed historically, diaper and nappy were originally construed as singular, but plurally marked diapers and nappies in singular contexts became more frequent by the mid-20th century. An example from 1960 appears in the OED draft entry for mess, taken from A.S. Neill's Summerhill (a popular account of Neill's pioneering Summerhill School). The quote voices a boy's thoughts about his younger brother: "If I am like him and mess my trousers the way he dirties his diapers, Mommy will love me again." (That's from the U.S. edition — the U.K. edition, reprinted here, has nappies instead of diapers.) The parallel structure here is telling: "mess my trousers" vs. "dirties his diapers/nappies." The plurally marked diapers and nappies appear to be influenced by pants and trousers — words that almost always appear in the plural, or pluralia tantum as they're technically known.

Let's take a look at other pluralia tantum in the pants/trousers family:

Outergarments: pants (orig. pantaloons), trousers, slacks, breeches/britches, bloomers, jeans, dungarees, bell bottoms, chinos, tights, shorts, trunks, Bermudas (extended to brand names: Levis, 501s, Wranglers, Calvins)
Undergarments: underpants, long johns, skivvies, drawers, panties, knickers, boxers, briefs, undies, tighty-whities (extended to brand names: BVDs, Fruit of the Looms, Jockeys)

The common theme is that all of these garments have two holes, one for each leg. For that reason, some have argued that the forms are best understood as duals rather than plurals, since the -s indicates duality or "twoness." (Other items exhibiting twoness include: suspenders, scissors, shears, pliers, tongs, forceps, binoculars, bellows, scales.) Thus, when diapers are worn (by babies or astronauts), they easily join the dual pants family, since they have two leg-holes. Considered as an individual piece of cloth, however, diaper remains resolutely singular (as in "Hand me that diaper"), since a diaper in its unworn state has no leg-holes and thus lacks duality.

Further evidence that diapers has taken steps towards the dual pants family can be found in constructions where duality is explicitly marked, as in "a pair of Xs." Here are a few Nowak-related examples:

It just doesn't seem Right Stuff macho to imagine John Glenn or Chuck Yeager in a pair of diapers. (Providence Journal, 2/12/07)

Nowak squeezed 900 miles out of a pair of diapers, exceeding the previous record of 220 miles or "I forgot the little man was still in the back seat." (Bakersfield Californian, 2/8/07)

Manhunting rocket jockey Lisa Marie Nowak may have destroyed her reputation, her ties to NASA, and at least one good pair of diapers, but a quick-acting true crime scribe is already banking on a book deal about Nowak's stellar breakdown. (Radar, 2/8/07)

Like all of us, I continue to shake my head and wonder how a world-class astronaut could don a pair of diapers and bring a steel mallet with her during her trip from Houston to Orlando to confront her romantic rival. (Mike Gallagher, 2/7/07)

Even though diapers and nappies have gone a long way to joining the pants family, they remain something of a special case since they'll never be pluralia tantum. When it's not worn, a diaper is just a diaper: a piece of fabric with no leg-holes. Only when it's worn and transformed into something "pants-like" can all of those -s forms exert their analogical influence, leading to a preference for diapers over diaper. But it remains only a preference, since even when worn a diaper can still be construed singularly. Pants, trousers, and all the rest have much more restrictive possibilities for morphologically singular use (such as in attributive usage like pant/trouser leg, or in specialized registers of the fashion world that allow constructions like "That's a nice pant").

The analogical pressure that makes plurally marked diapers and nappies acceptable in a singular context appears to work in the opposite direction when it comes to popular brand names like Pampers and Huggies. As noted above, these brand names started off as plural, but in common usage they have developed s-less forms on the analogy of diaper. Examples from the Web:

I've never had a Pamper leak poo or pee, and they look oh so comfortable to boot. (link)

I got called on my cell phone last night so I could rush home to change a Pamper. (link)

While you're in there, I need a Huggie for Betsy. (link)

Brian fakes that he has no idea what a Huggie is, and Mike and Debbie remind him, in unison, that it's a diaper. (link)

So the brand names lose their -s to fit situations where they're considered individual pieces of fabric rather than pants-like garments. But both the brand names and the generic terms continue to show a strong family resemblance: a single item can be morphologically specified as either singular or plural, depending on the context of use.

I've tried explaining all this to my six-month-old son Blake while I'm changing his diaper(s), but so far he's more interested in figuring out how to cram both hands in his mouth.

[Update, 2/16: Diaper-related email has been arriving thick and fast. (Hmm, maybe that's not the best idiom to use when talking about diapers.) First, Bryan Erickson points out an element of the Nowak story that I had missed and also speculates about NASA-specific diapers:

Complicating the entertaining plurale tantum analysis, the police report noted that the cops found a garbage bag in her car containing *two* soiled diapers - so she did change her nappy/nappies at least twice (since she had also changed out of the second one) in the course of the twelve-hour trip and subsequent four hours or so before being apprehended. (She also must have stopped to fill up the tank at least a couple times in 900 miles, and she had time to check in to a hotel and take a bus from there to the airport, so it seems like bathroom breaks were hardly a limiting factor on her timing - the diapers seem to have been more of a familiar convenience than a desperate measure.)
That limits the probative value of Nowak coverage in evincing a continuing shift to plurale tantum status for diapers.
Further complicating the picture, NASA has long had its own name for this - I assume the ones she wore were NASA issue, not a commercial brand - it calls it a "Maximum Absorbency Garment", or MAG - in the singular - maybe demonstrating NASA's role as a conservative institution perpetuating the now more old-fashioned singular conception of a diaper.
Which makes me wonder, what do the astronauts actually call them in daily speech - do they combine the larger trend with the bureaucratese acronym and use a plurale tantumization of MAG, "maggies"? Some vital linguistic research remains to be done on this case.

Next we have a couple of informative emails from foreign correspondents, explaining some subtle usage differences between diapers and nappies. From Matthew Hurst:

In your recent language log article about the astro diapers you state that one can say 'she had nappies on', 'she was in nappies', etc. I don't believe this is correct (as a native brit). One can say 'she was in nappies' in the sense that during that period of her life she was in nappies, but one can't say that with the sense that at that point in time she was wearing the thing.
A clearer example might be 'is she still in diapers?' 'is she still wearing nappies?' - these are both ok but, 'is she wearing (a pair of) diapers (right now)?' cannot be replaced with 'is she wearing (..) nappies (..)?'

And from Down Under, here's Lara Hopkins:

Regarding the plural "a pair of nappies", I just wanted to let you know that this doesn't work in AusEng. In four years of nappy chat and advocacy group work, I've never once heard this expression used. A baby may be in a state of being "in nappies" in general - i.e. not toilet trained - but I've never heard of a baby being referred to as wearing "a pair of nappies".

Paul Wilkins questions my reading of the Summerhill quote:

The sentence you printed about the trousers/diapers parallel doesn't ring to me the same as it did to you. I'm sure by now you can figure that the boy's brother soils a number of diapers, and the trousers could be either the ones he's wearing just then or all of them. I don't suppose it matters much, because that ambiguity is built in, although we will probably read it as the trousers he currently has on, if we're even talking about real trousers.

Aaron Dinkin shares some thoughts about pluralia tantum:

A couple of the examples of pluralia tantum (or "dualia tantum"?) that you list in your latest Language Log post have the interesting property of not being etymologically plural at all, but having been reanalyzed as plural, perhaps by analogy with other words in the same semantic class.
"Levi's" is originally a possessive, as the spelling indicates - "Levi's blue jeans". And of course "forceps" is singular in Latin (like "biceps"), but it's treated as a dual like "tongs".

Next, several readers (including Jan Freeman and Brett Reynolds) write in to point out distinctions between cloth diapers and disposable diapers, and between infant diapers and "pullup" diapers for older children and adults. "Eric" (last name unknown) admirably extends the analysis into "diaper cover" and "pullup" territory:

I'd guess that there is more going on with diaper/diapers than the [two leg holes] --> [dual form] implication. I'm not sure *what* is going on, but that's what we pay you professionals for.
As you have a six-month-old, you know that (cloth) diapers are simply a rectangle of cloth. But it's worth noting that some diaper *covers* (for use outside the diapers) are permanently formed with leg holes, and these do *not* behave like pants, at least for me:

She needs a diaper cover.
She needs diapers.
*She needs diaper covers -- unless you are packing for a trip, and she needs many.
More saliently, for me, our 2-1/2-year-old is currently alternating between disposable diapers and disposable pullups. These latter are identical to diapers, except that where diapers have sticky tabs, they are permanently fastened -- so they can be pulled up, like underwear.
She's wearing diapers.
She's wearing a pullup.
She's wearing pullups -- indicates habitual wearing, not a single instance.
I've overthought so can no longer trust my intuitions, but I think that pullups, although more like pants, are only questionably pluralia tantum.

I too feel that I've overthought the diaper issue, so I'm going to stick to changing them rather than analyzing them for a while.]

[Update #2: Discussion continues over at Languagehat. Linguabloggers at Function Words and Language News also chime in.]

[Final update: I tie up some loose ends in this post.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at February 15, 2007 01:55 PM