December 25, 2007

Christmas and "politically correct(ed)ness"

As in past years, this holiday season has featured numerous gripes about the "politically correct" avoidance of the word Christmas. I noticed an interesting formulation of the complaint in a New York Post review of the television special "Elmo's Christmas Countdown":

And contrary to popular politically correctness, this Christmas special actually mentions "Christmas." (NY Post, Dec. 22, 2007)

Here are a few other recent Yuletide complaints using similar wording:

Unfortunately Christmas is not only in danger of falling victim to the politically correctness zealots, but it has been hijacked by commercial interests. (Northern Life, Sudbury, Ontario, column by Lionel Rudd, Nov. 30, 2007)

"Wouldn't it be nice if we could avoid placing Politically Correctness, including sizes on people other than ourselves. Perhaps setting an example is better than pointing out changes we would rather see in others. Keep Santa Fat, I'm fat and I'm ok with that too." -Tom, Northview (KSPR News, Springfield, MO, "Talk Backs: Slim Santa," Dec. 13, 2007)

I am disappointed with all the people who are trying to do away with Christmas. I am not talking about the religious aspects or the politically correctness or incorrectness. I am talking about the very word Christmas that brings to hearts and minds magical moments. (Evening Sun, Hanover, PA, letter to the editor, Dec. 13, 2007)

"Politically correctness" (as opposed to the more common "political correctness") treats the adverb-adjective combination "politically correct" as a single unit, tacking on the -ness suffix despite the resulting grammatical peculiarity. A Google search reports nearly 5,000 examples, and Google Book Search turns up more than 50 attestations in print. While searching I also noticed another variant, "politically correctedness" (~250 Googlehits). Here are a few in the usual Christmas context:

and yes. I said Christmas. Not Happy Holidays. Not politically correctedness here. Christmas. (link)

Reading the local paper this morning I see that some people in Medway were upset with the school system for succumbing to the PC, politically correctedness, that seems to have warped the minds of the younger than me generation. When did Christmas become a four-letter word? (link)

happy holidays to everyone!...actually....screw politically correctedness and have a Merry Fu@#ing Christmas Season! (link)

Since "politically correct" (or, for some, "politically corrected") has become such a fixed expression, it's not too surprising to see it nominalized by the simple addition of -ness. The rationale behind this formation is more visually apparent when a hyphen is inserted between "politically correct" and the nominalizing suffix:

Anyway, at one point I got fed up with all the 'politically correct-ness' of the holiday season - you couldn't say 'Merry Christmas' to people, because what if they celebrated Hanukkah? (link)

Most "Politically Correct-ness" is just words being replaced so that the person using them will not hurt a single person who might ever overhear. (link)

I wouldn't consider this a case of an adverb modifying a noun, since the ADV+ADJ combo of "politically correct" is still lurking, despite the nominalization. The modification of a noun with an adverb is of course a grammatical no-no, but in my post "Love, adverbially" I considered some apparent exceptions. For most of those exceptions, the adverb turns out to be a "sentence adverb" modifying an entire sentence or independent clause, even if the target of the modification is obscured by an elliptical construction. (For instance, the movie title Love Actually is actually an elliptical form of a line in the movie, " actually is all around.")

I went hunting for more examples of ADV+ADJ-ness, careful to avoid collocations that merely consist of a sentence adverb preceding a noun with -ness, e.g., "There is clearly nervousness over the issue," or "Eventually sadness sets in." Here are some that I found (with the aid of a corpus that has part-of-speech tagging and regular-expression searching):

Tomorrow is my last day of absolutely madness. (link)

The shouty voice from downstairs dimly nagged at my barely awakeness. (link)

Postpartum depression does exist, but for many it results in minor symptoms such as not wanting to be near your child, constantly sleepiness or having trouble focusing. (link)

And the strange darkly wonderfulness of A Touch of Daniel. (link)

As he says himself, there is a distinctly uniqueness to Cork people. (link)

These large panels of processing figures are spectacular, but they have that curiously flatness of fascimile that is impossible to overcome. (link)

My flirt is a front for the emotionally emptiness I experience. (link)

But then… we are also capable of incredibly kindness, and creativity. (link)

Silly boys with their toys and their overly drunkenness. (link)

I see Hip-Hop finally being awoken from it's roots in the pursuit of Truth, with Mos Def leading in bringing his socially and politically awareness to the forefront. (link)

Some of the above might simply be cases of poor self-editing, where the writer starts with an ADV+ADJ construction and then adds -ness to the adjective without adjusting the adverb by removing -ly. But note that in some examples such editing wouldn't actually work: you can't change "barely awakeness" to "bare awakeness," or "overly drunkenness" to "over drunkenness."

As with "politically correct-ness" the underlying parsing is sometimes signaled by hyphenization:

Requests always come in just about the time I start getting swamped with pre-term-insanely-busy-ness. (link)

A modifier stack-up like "pre-term-insanely-busy-ness" starts looking like the "extended adjectives" that Mark Liberman has recently considered, as in Dolly Parton's "I got those can't stop crying, dishes flying, PMS blues." So we could think of ADV+ADJ-ness (or a longer version with more modifiers) as a nominalization of an extended adjective, with the addition of -ness rather than a full noun like blues. To some observers these constructions surely seem like nothing more than grammatically incorrectness, but to others they might have a certain distinctively stylishness.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at December 25, 2007 11:48 PM