August 25, 2006

Dwarf planets and California lilacs

Ben Zimmer tackles the new technical term dwarf planet (denoting Pluto, Ceres, Xena, and others on the way), noting that some astronomers -- Owen Gingerich, in particular -- are offended that, with the new definitions, dwarf planets are not planets, which runs against our expectation that an English compound of the form A+B is a hyponym of B (so that, in this case dwarf planets WOULD be planets).  Ben considers, and dismisses, one class of compounds where hyponymy doesn't hold (ironyms).  But in fact ironyms are a special case of a more general phenomenon.  Is there a place for dwarf planet there?

What Ben wrote:

So the fact that the IAU would like us to think of dwarf planets as distinct from "real" planets lumps the lexical item dwarf planet in with such oddities as Welsh rabbit (not really rabbit) and Rocky Mountain oysters (not really oysters). In a 2004 article in American Speech, Larry Horn dubbed such formations ironyms, since they "represent lexical irony."

Should we think of dwarf planet as the latest ironym, then? I doubt the astronomers in Prague really had lexical irony in mind...

In the larger class of compounds to which ironyms belong, the denotation of A+B doesn't involve (the denotation of B) directly, but rather picks out a class of things r() that RESEMBLE the things in in some specific way; (A+B)´ is then a subset of r() -- rather than of -- related in some way to A´.  Let's get concrete: look at daylily, rockrose, and California lilac (three types of plants that are all over the place here in northern California). 

A daylily (genus Hemerocallis) is not a lily (genus Lilium), but it looks pretty much like one.  A rockrose (genus Cistus) is not a rose (genus Rosa), but its flowers are very rose-like.  A California lilac (genus Ceanothus) is not a lilac (genus Syringa), but it's a shrubby plant with lilac-colored flowers in clusters; that is, a California lilac is a lilac-like plant that's connected in some way to California.

There's no irony here, just the conveying of some resemblance, and there are huge numbers of examples.  (Ironyms have the component of resemblance, PLUS an ironic overtone.)

So, is dwarf planet like California lilac?  It could have been, except for the fact that dwarf is one of a small set of nouns -- giant and monster are two others -- that have developed conventional, and productive, uses as size modifiers of nouns: unfortunately, dwarf X is already specialized with the meaning '(very) small X', to the extent that modifying dwarf is starting to push into the syntactic territory of adjectives (and is so classified in some dictionaries).  At least in horticultural usage, it can conjoin with clear adjectives:

Unusual dwarf, bushy, tufted habit and spectacular foliage! The leaves of 'Shaina' are the same dark red all summer... (link)

and occur predicatively:

Nothing is dwarf if the spot you put it in is too small. (link)

and be compared:

Compact & slow growing, it is more dwarf than Okushimo. (link)

In fact, dwarf is already used in astronomy as a size modifier, in the technical term dwarf star.  Dwarf stars ARE stars, stars that are (among other things) small.

Given all this, dwarf planet was a really bad choice of terminology, pretty much guaranteed to sow confusion.  But would the astronomers consult a linguist?  Noooo.

[It would please me to write no more on this topic.  Every single time I tried to type "dwarf", I typed "drawf" first.  Ack.]

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at August 25, 2006 05:12 PM