October 31, 2007

False logic and linguistic blindness: you could look it up

According to James Hrynyshyn ("a freelance science journalist based in western North Carolina"), "There is no such thing as a 'woman president'":

You know the English language is in trouble when both NPR and the BBC World Service decide that "woman" is an adjective, as in "Argentina has just elected its first woman president." As a copy editor, I had to fix that one numerous times, usually in the copy of young reporters whose excuse was that the proper adjective, "female," was too clinical, and they didn't want their story to read as if it concerned a science project. Oh really?

First, that's no excuse. "Woman" is noun. Look it up.

Well, the English language systematically and generally allows nouns to be used as modifiers, so I don't really need to. But if you insist...

The Oxford English Dictionary's entry for woman has:

II. attrib. and Comb.

6. a. Simple attrib. = 'of or characteristic of a woman or women, feminine, womanly'

Citations are given back to the 16th century:

1542 UDALL Erasm. Apoph. 29 The woman sexe is no lesse apte to learne al maner thynges then menne are.
1621 LADY M. WROTH Urania 104 Woman modestie kept her silent.

And continuing to the present day:

1971 V. CANNING Firecrest vi. 83 He put his arm round her shoulder..and felt through silk the warmth and firmness of woman flesh.

Even more relevant is the specific subentry devoted to the "woman president" type of construction:

b. appos. (a) = 'female', esp. with designations of occupation or profession: woman doctor, driver, -help, journalist, officer, p.c., police officer, -savage, teacher, etc.

Examples of this one are cited back to the early 14th century:

a1300 Cursor M. 29420 If þou wit þi woman frend Find clerk be doand dede vn-hende.

The construction is in common use in the 15th and 16th:

1530 PALSGR. 289/2 Woman coke, cuisiniere.
1617 MORYSON Itin. I. 258 The famous woman poet Sapho.
1632 BROME Court Beggar V. ii. (1653) S3b, What Woman Monster's this?
1659 D. PELL Improv. Sea Ep. Ded. dj, Wee are so wise now, that wee have our woman Politicians.

And it's cited through to the present day as well:

1968 R. L. FISH Bridge that went Nowhere iv. 44, I might have known it would be a woman driver!
1972 L. LAMB Picture Frame xviii. 154 A woman p.c. was clearing an outside drain.
1973 ‘B. MATHER’ Snowline x. 121 I'll send a couple of woman officers along.
1976 R. LEWIS Witness my Death i. 36 You've shown all the worst traits that can be expected in a woman doctor. 1976 Southern Even. Echo (Southampton) 11 Nov. 32/5 A chase through rush-hour crowds ended with a suspected shoplifter escaping into the darkness..as he was pursued by a woman police officer.
1982 A. BROOKNER Providence ix. 108, I wonder why they didn't send a woman teacher.

The plural women is sometimes used in a similar way:

1935 D. L. SAYERS Gaudy Night vii. 147 There are much better ways of enjoying Oxford than fooling round..with the women students.
1971 Guardian 15 Apr. 11/1 The diocese of Hong Kong, the only diocese out of 300 to have stated openly its support for the ordination of women priests.
1981 'A. CROSS' Death in Faculty ix. 106 Most women students..don't really believe women professors actually exist.

I think that the quotes from Dorothy Sayers and Carolyn Heilbrun ("Amanda Cross") pretty much settle the matter; but just for fun, I'll point out that John Dryden's translation of the Aeneid joins the chorus:

1013 "Vain hunter! didst thou think through woods to chase
1014 The savage herd, a vile and trembling race?
1015 Here cease thy vaunts, and own my victory:
1016 A woman warrior was too strong for thee.
1017 Yet, if the ghosts demand the conqueror's name,
1018 Confessing great Camilla, save thy shame."

As for man, it has its attributive uses as well. Returning to the OED, we find (among many others):

1530 J. PALSGRAVE Lesclarcissement 242/2 *Man nourse, novrricier.
1786 C. POWYS Diary May (1899) 225 To the play I went... The men actors at this period do not shine in London.
1893 Ladies' Home Jrnl. Apr. 39/1 There is no impropriety in a man friend writing to you without having asked your permission.
1922 J. JOYCE Ulysses II. 517 What's our studfee?... You fee men dancers on the Riviera, I read.

It's surprising how often this happens. Someone invents a theory about the nature of the English language, entirely unsupported by any evidence or argument beyond his own whim about what is "logical" (or "consistent" or "traditional" or just plain "correct"), and starts hectoring everybody for writing or talking in a fashion that's been normal among educated speakers for centuries -- in this case, 700 years.

You also can generally expect to find that the complainer fails to heed his own advice. In this case, a quick scan of the first third of the front page of Mr. Hrynyshyn's blog turns up at least the following examples of nouns used as modifiers:

sports reporting, sleeping habits, science journalist, reincarnation nut-case Shirley MacLaine, computer models, greenhouse gases, climate change, chemistry professor, Nobel Committee, peace prizes, Ecology Center, bottom line, climate science, "climate porn", media coverage, the climate change front ...

(Geoff Pullum discussed the general question of nouns as modifiers in March of 2005, and it has come up in other contexts as well, for example here.)

[Hat tip: Mark V. Paris]

[Update -- Ben Zimmer points out that William Safire dealt with this question at some length a few months ago.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 31, 2007 10:51 AM