December 24, 2007

Another reversal

Following up on my posting about problems with converses and directionality, Chris Lance wrote this morning to ask about substitute 'replace', as in this Bizarro cartoon from a couple of years ago:

I've written about this case at some length on the American Dialect Society mailing list, over several years, but now see that it hasn't turned up on Language Log.  So here's a very brief account of the phenomenon.

For details of the various uses of substitute and their history, I refer you to a paper by David Denison, still in press but available in .pdf format on his website.

According to Denison, the development comes in three stages.  In a nutshell:

1.  standard substitute: substitute NEW for OLD (i.e., substitute a fried chunk of your left buttock for the pork chop) -- vs. replace OLD with/by NEW (i.e., replace the pork chop with/by a fried chunk of your left buttock).  Note: the prepositions are important.

2.  encroached substitute: substitute OLD with/by NEW (i.e., substitute the pork chop with/by a fried chunk of your left buttock).  The verb substitute encroaches on replace by taking on its argument structure (with the result that the order of the two arguments mirrors the sequence of the two denotata in time and their information status, in both cases old before new).  But standard substitute continues in use; the two meanings are usually distinguished by preposition choice -- though to judge from comments in my e-mail, this is a subtlety that escapes many people.  Encroached substitute has been around since the 17th century, and as MWDEU notes, despite having been condemned by many commentators, it's been appearing in standard writing on both sides of the Atlantic for a long time (and has been recognized as a standard variant in Merriam-Webster dictionaries since WNI2 in 1934).

3.  reversed substitute: substitute OLD for NEW (i.e., substitute the pork chop for a fried chunk of your left buttock, as in the Bizarro cartoon).  This one -- a blend of standard and encroached substitute -- is genuinely recent, apparently becoming widespread in the U.K. only about twenty years ago, though now spreading to the U.S., as in the cartoon (the cartoonist Dan Piraro is American).  Denison argues that the vector for its spread in the U.K. was the language of sport, in particular football/soccer: the spread of reversed substitute beginning in the mid-80s follows the institution of tactical substitution in soccer in the 1966-67 season.  As Chris Lance put it in e-mail to me:

If a manager makes a substitution during the course of a game, then the player taken off is said to have been substituted. From there, it's a small step to say that the player taken off has been substituted for the player who replaced him. This usage now seems to have spread to other contexts.

Understandably, many speakers have trouble interpreting reversed substitute, which functions as the converse of the standard verb.  You have to rely on context to figure out which meaning is intended.

Plenty of detail, documentation, and discussion in Denison's paper. 

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 24, 2007 06:35 PM