December 04, 2007

Extramarital toes

The 1 December Economist entertained me by beginning a story ("Labour pains", p. 17) on the latest British political scandal with a wonderful coordination containing a figurative surprise in the final conjunct:

As British political scandals go, this one is not particularly juicy.  No honours seem to have been sold, no politician's Parisian hotel bills picked up, no extramarital toes sucked.

Well, no toes were sucked extramaritally; nevertheless, the reference to extramaritality is in an adjective modifying toes, rather than in an adverb modifying toes (were) sucked.  This is a figure of speech known as the transferred epithet or displaced epithet -- or as hypallage (for the pronunciation, think of allergy).  I promised you back in April that I would post on hypallage, and now I am.

Also back in April, Michael Quinion's World Wide Words newsletter (#541) cited a somewhat different sort of example:

I was at a meeting on Thursday that included a sandwich lunch. Mine was Italian Chicken, whose other ingredients were Italian pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, freshly-ground black pepper, and free-range mayonnaise. It was sad to think of those cute little mayonnaises, running around unconstrained and happy until it was time for them to join the rest of the ingredients in my sandwich.

That free-range mayonnaise would be mayonnaise made with free-range eggs, which are in turn eggs from free-range chickens (NOAD2 has both the poultry sense of free-range and the sense with the adjective displaced from poultry to their product, eggs, but not of course any senses with the adjective further displaced to foodstuffs made with eggs).  This sort of transfer, of an adjective "from noun to noun", is sometimes taken as definitional for hypallage, as in the Wikipedia entry:

A transferred epithet or hypallage is the transfer of an epithet from one noun to another.

with the examples "restless night", "happy morning", and Thomas Gray's "The ploughman homeward plods his weary way".

Strictly speaking, the transfer is not really from one noun to another, but from one referent to another: an adjective that syntactically modifies one noun is understood as applying semantically not to the referent of that noun but to some other referent (one not necessarily named by a noun in the discourse). 

In any case, in addition to the "noun-to-noun" cases, there are also many like the extramarital toes example I started with, with adjectives interpreted adverbially.  Here's one that Marc Sacks posted to ADS-L on 30 July, from e-mail to him:

Internet Radio in the United States dodged a very narrow bullet yesterday when SoundExchange, the thuggish lobbying arm if the Recording Industry Association of America, backed off on demands which would have virtually silenced this exciting and original kind of Radio due to the imposition of a fee schedule which was roundly, and rightly, criticized as excessive and unfair.

That is, dodged a narrow bullet 'narrowly dodged a bullet'.  Larry Horn then said that he thought of this as the "cocked an inquisitive eyebrow" construction (i.e., 'cocked an eyebrow inquisitively'), and I supplied the technical terminology, plus a reference to Robert A. Hall, Jr.'s 1973 squib in Linguistic Inquiry 4.92-4, "The transferred epithet in P. G. Wodehouse" (there's also Hall's 1974 book, The Comic Style of P. G. Wodehouse).  Wodehouse was fond of hypallage.

On 14 October, Larry added an odd example from Cris Collinsworth on NBC, discussing a big fumble: it turned the complete game around 'it turned the game completely around' (or 'it completely turned the game around').

(Note: English has a class of adjectives understood adverbially that aren't figurative, in expressions like previous president 'person who was previously president'.  There's no displacement here; these adjectives semantically modify the nouns they are in construction with, but in a more complex way than ordinary adjectives do.)

My interest in hypallage was piqued back in April by e-mail from Daniel Hulme asking about examples like a cold cup of tea, which I took at first to involve displacement ('a cup of cold tea').  After further discussion with Hulme and later on ADS-L, I concluded that cup here is just a measurement noun, so that cold is in fact modifying cup of tea; it's hard to interpret a cold plate of toast as 'a plate of cold toast', because plate isn't ordinarily used as a measurement noun.

Then came free-range mayonnaise, dodging narrow bullets, and, most deliciously, sucking extramarital toes.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 4, 2007 05:53 PM