Unpack Your Anti-Intersective Adjectives

I mentioned in a previous post that I would elaborate on the linguistic concepts of non-intersective and anti-intersective adjectives, so here we go.

Intersective adjective: The adjective intersects with other uses of the same descriptor. A green car and a green frog are intersective in that they are both green, and green means the same thing in both cases: both the car and the frog are within the same subset: that of things that are green.

Frog Car

Frog Car photo by Darin McGrew / Creative Commons

Relative intersective adjective: These differ from regular intersective adjectives in that they are—you guessed it—relative. A big car and a big frog are both described as big, but big is a relative term—the big frog is only big in relation to other frogs, not in relation to a car. They can’t be considered as being members of the same subset, “things that are big,” without qualification.

Non-intersective adjective: This is where it gets a little weirder. Non-intersective adjectives are descriptors that may or may not describe their noun. The most frequently cited examples are words such as alleged, probable, suspected and possible. In the sentence, “A possible motive for her alleged crime is jealousy,” there may or may not be a motive, and there may or may not be a crime. Note that unlike most intersective adjectives, most non-intersective adjectives have corresponding adverb or noun forms: allegedly, probably; suspect (n), possibility.

Anti-intersective adjective: Anti-intersective, or privative, adjectives are descriptors that negate the noun—the described noun cannot be a member of its own set. The best examples of  anti-intersective adjectives are fake and counterfeit. A fake gun is never a member of the subset “things that are guns.” A counterfeit Rembrandt cannot be a member of the subset “Rembrandts.”

Non-intersective and anti-intersective adjectives usually come early in adjective sequence. Using Radiohead lyrics as an example, “a fake Chinese rubber plant” is a Chinese rubber plant that is fake. If you instead said, “a Chinese fake rubber plant,” you’d be talking about a rubber plant that is fake and made in China. If you said, “a Chinese rubber fake plant,” you’d be describing a fake plant made out of Chinese rubber. The song title, “Fake Plastic Trees,” is a lyrical play on words that would be redundant in normal (non-lyrical) usage: although a rubber plant is a real plant, a plastic tree is a fake tree. In the title “Fake Plastic Trees,” both fake and plastic could qualify as anti-intersective adjectives: plastic trees are not part of the set “things that are trees,” nor are fake trees. In regular usage, although you might say “fake rubber tree/plant,” you would probably say either “fake tree” or “plastic tree,” but not fake plastic tree.”


John Oliver Calls Dingo; Truthiness Will Out

On his show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver recently came up with a neologism that I feel ranks with such terms as Stephen Colbert’s 2005 coinage of “truthiness.” On the subject of net neutrality, the blatant conflict of interest inherent in former cable industry lobbyist Tom Wheeler being appointed to the position of Federal Communications Commission chairman was described by Oliver as “the equivalent of needing a babysitter and hiring a dingo.”


Not a fox, but a dingo. Photo courtesy of Matthias Siegel via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Oliver and Wheeler have traded barbs with each other since the original show aired in June 2014, thereby spreading the terminology further across the the internet. (Also note that when asked about the show at an FCC open meeting, Wheeler said that he had needed to look up “dingo,” as he hadn’t known what one was. From this statement we can infer that he was also ignorant of the popular cultural references associated with dingoes and babies.)

Several weeks later, on a show about predatory lending, Oliver slimmed the joke down to the catchy idiom, “I call dingo!” in reference to the even crazier conflicts of interest between the Texas legislature and the payday loan industry. This is a construction and usage similar to that of calling shenanigans: “shenanigans” as a noun, meaning “dishonest maneuvering,” or, more innocuously, “practical jokes” or “mischief,” goes back a few centuries, but the popularity of the accusatory construction “to call shenanigans,” meaning “to cry foul,” seems to be traceable to a 1998 episode of South Park (although Kyle declares, not calls, shenanigans):

Kyle: I’m declaring shenanigans on you! This game is rigged!
Carnie: Shenanigans?
Barbrady: [arriving] What’s all the hoo-ha?
Kyle: Officer Barbrady, I wanna declare shenanigans on this carnival operator.
Barbrady: Why?
Kyle: This game is fixed! The balls are bigger than Jennifer Love Hewitt’s mouth!
Barbrady: If that is true, then your declaration of shenanigans is just.

Neologisms are often born of necessity, and that’s what I love about these three  constructions: they all pretty much mean “bullshit” (either as a noun or an interjection), but with more specific (and timely/topical) shades of meaning, as well as having the additional benefit of being non-expletives.

Truthiness, while infrequently having been used as a synonym for “truthfulness” in centuries past, was redefined and popularized by Stephen Colbert: “Truthiness is, ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.”

(Tangentially, the original dingo story, that of the murder conviction (now overturned) of Lindy Chamberlain, mother of an infant girl taken by dingoes in central Australia in 1980, could be considered a case of truthiness over truth—it is widely believed that Chamberlain and her husband were accused and convicted of murder, despite all evidence to the contrary, in large part due to a belief that Chamberlain did not appear to behave in a way that one would consider “normal” for a grieving mother. In other words, regardless of the coroner’s report, the physical evidence, witness testimony, etc., the “gut feeling” people seemed to have at the time was that Chamberlain wasn’t hysterical enough, and therefore must be guilty of infanticide.)

Now I’m sure some of the “word police,” the “wordinistas” over at Webster’s, are gonna say, “Hey, that’s not a word.” Well, anybody who knows me knows I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist — constantly telling us what is or isn’t true, or what did or didn’t happen.
——Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report (premiere episode), 2005

“Truthiness” served such a pointed and immediate need in America’s vocabulary that it was Merriam-Webster’s 2006 Word of the Year:

1. truthiness (noun)
1 : “truth that comes from the gut, not books” (Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” October 2005)
2 : “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true” (American Dialect Society, January 2006)

(Interestingly, while this definition comes from the Word of the Year link above, the word truthiness itself does not yet show up in a word query on m-w.com.)

I call shenanigans! is most comparable in meaning to “I call bullshit!” The “I call” [bullshit/shenanigans/dingo] preface to the respective object words is a semantic pleonasm, meaning that the nouns used alone (as interjections) are understood to mean the same thing as their full idiomatic phrases—calling “dingo!” means the same thing as “calling dingo.” (Or, to be more clear, “dingo!” is synonymous with “I call dingo.”)

Dingo! or I call dingo! borrows its syntax from earlier phrases (cf. “Shotgun!“), but its meaning is distinct and precise; it refers specifically to conflicts of interest—a particular sort of political shenanigans. Besides the current usefulness of having a pithier way to say “conflict of interest,” it is a particularly nice bit of coinage in that it sounds like “Bingo!”—another called-out declaratory interjection. With the extraordinary amount of conflicts of interest in American governance today, I can envision “dingo!” becoming a meaningful and widely used term. Good on yer, John O!

Q&A with a Technical Editor Redditor

Tibetan fox

The wise yet skeptical Tibetan fox. Via imgur.

The New Reddit Journal of Science recently featured an AMA (“Ask Me Anything” Q&A) with a science writer and technical editor. She offers some really helpful comments and links to people who want to work in science journalism.

Science AMA Series: I’m Celia Elliott, a science writer and technical editor, and today I’d like to answer your questions about improving your technical communications, AMA! : science. Bonus link, possibly also of use: a search for “editing” within the subreddit r/writing. Sometimes there are some interesting tidbits in there.

tidbit |ˈtidˌbit| (also chiefly Brit.titbit |ˈtit-| )
a small piece of tasty food.
• a small and particularly interesting item of gossip or information.
ORIGIN mid 17th cent. (as tyd bit, tid-bit): from dialect tid ‘tender’ (of unknown origin) + bit.
New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd Ed.

Working with a Line Editor

In her blog, “Disregard the Prologue,” Kate Sparkes has been writing about her experiences with independent publishing. Her post on working with an editor is excellent. She also has a publishing FAQ that deals with some of the questions she’s asked about her choice to self-publish. Included in her post is a link to another
 page that explains how much editors should charge.

Bonus link: Seven Deadly Myths and Three Inspired Truths About Book Editing.

The Sequence of Cumulative Adjectives

Cumulative (aka attributive) adjectives, unlike coordinate (aka correlative) adjectives, do not require commas between them when placed before their object in a sentence. While coordinate adjectives are sequentially interchangeable, there is a standard order to cumulative adjectives that most native English speakers understand intuitively without necessarily realizing it:

  1. Articles, possessives, and demonstrativesthe, her, those
  2. Time indicators: last, primary, next
  3. Words indicating amount, or counting words: twelve, few, extra
  4. Evaluating words: tiresome, pretty, difficult
  5. Words describing size: enormous, high, small
  6. Words describing shape: square, flat, oblong
  7. Words describing a condition: clean, cold, melted
  8. Age indicators: old, ancient, young
  9. Colors: green, pink, black
  10. Nationality or geographical region: American, Scandinavian
  11. Religion: Christian, Islamic, Hindu
  12. Material or composition: brick-and-mortar, silk, clay
  13. Words that are usually nouns used as adjectives: steak knife, junk drawer

See this Oxford University Press quiz for examples following this pattern. Example #7 is properly reordered to A strange small square metal box. (1+4+5+6+12+noun.) A recent article at Slate discusses the semantic development of the conventional sequence of cumulative adjectives in English (although their list is not as long nor specific as the one above).

Witch-burner & Bible-botherer James I of England

Witch-burner/Bible-botherer James I of England & Ireland/James IV of Scotland. After Paul van Somer, c. 1630.

One of the useful aspects of this sequence is the ability to change meaning, feeling or emphasis by putting cumulative adjectives in non-standard order, often for purposes of poetic allusion. Consider this line from the King James Bible:
[…] after the fire a still small voice.
Still (meaning ‘unmoving’) = #7, a condition; small = #5, size. The conventional order is reversed. See various other translations of the same verse: a voice, a soft whisper; the sound of a low whisper; a quiet, whispering voice; a sound of a gentle blowing. One can imagine King James VI and I’s scholars choosing this translation for poetic, rather than doctrinal, reasons.

(There are also such things as non-intersective and anti-intersective adjectives, which slot in between numbers 1 & 2 above, and which will be covered in a future post.)

h/t Vici Casana, M.A. of UC Berkeley Extension & We had a deal, Kyle@MeFi.


Negation as Implicature

the Night Vale Harbor and Waterfront Recreation Area never really existed, and was in no way a multimillion-dollar failure of municipal planning.

All Things Linguistic examines the use of negation in the storytelling of the fantastic and fantastical podcast Welcome to Night ValeWhere even “Not” isn’t as it seems.

Night Vale often uses negation as an implicature, similarly to use by government agencies of the Glomar response: “We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of the faceless old woman who lives in your home.” Listen to Radiolab‘s podcast episode on a Cold War use of the Glomar response here.

Older than you think—Not! Adding “not” at the very end of a sentence as a form of negation is not a new construction. An early OED citation is from George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860), in which she writes:

She would make a sweet, strange, troublesome, adorable wife to some man or other, but he would never have chosen her himself. Did she feel as he did? He hoped she did—not.

(More words and usages that are older than you think at this listicle at the Guardian UK.)

h/t Lexica @Metafilter

Gender Terminology, Old and New

Knowing the etymology and social history of words can be helpful in determining and remembering preferred forms. To that end, here is a very basic primer on some gender-related terminology:

Mona Kennedy

Princess Kennedy as Mona. Photo and edit: Chad Kirkland. Illustration: Paul Frame. From slugmag.com.

Transgender: An adjective, as in transgender person. Not transgenders, as if a noun, nor transgendered, as if a verb—the -ed suffix comes with the implication that it is something that has happened or been done to someone, rather than a natural state, and is therefore not used. The difference is similar to that of  person of color (n. + pp. acting as adj.) vs. colored (adj.)/coloreds (pl. n.), although those two terms have different meanings (people of color is inclusive of colored people, but not the reverse).

Cisgender: The opposite of transgender, cisgender people’s gender identities and the physical sexual characteristics they were born with are the same.  The prefixes trans- and cis- are from Latin, and are used in the field of chemistry to describe molecular structure. The Latin trans means “across,” and cis means “on this side of”; as opposites they mean “on the same side” and “on the other side.” Cisgender woman or cis woman (a person who both identifies as, and was born with the sexual characteristics of, a female) is a term used in contrast to transgender woman or trans woman (a person who identifies as female but was born with the sexual characteristics of a male). In general usage (that is, when not specifically discussing gender issues), cis women and trans women are properly referred to as simply women. (Note that while transgender is spelled as one word, trans man and trans woman are not.)

Agender: Distinct from bigender or androgynous (meaning “both male and female”: bi- = “two”, andro- = “man”, -gynous = “having female parts”), agender (a- = “without”) is synonymous with genderless, or neutrois. Agender people sometimes use different pronouns, such as xe, thon, and hir, or may prefer the use of they as a singular pronoun. Some pronoun forms, such as he-she or shim, are usually considered derogatory and best avoided. The correct choice is always determined by the preference of the individual in question.

Trans*: The asterisk here is meant as a sort of wildcard, making trans* an umbrella term for the spectrum of non-conforming gender identities and expression: transgender, transsexual,  agender, gender-fluid, non-binary, etc.—more colloquially, genderqueer people. Its popular use has been recently increasing in discourse on gender issues. It is basically an inclusive abbreviation.

Intersex: Mentioned here as it is important to not conflate the term intersex with those above. Intersex people have hormonal, genetic, or anatomical variations that cause physical sexual ambiguity. The term is biological rather than related to sexual orientation or gender expression, and is therefore not synonymous with transgender or pansexual.

Words to avoid:

Transsexual (or Transexual): A term used in the fields of medicine and psychology in the mid-twentieth century, before it was widely understood that sexual orientation and gender identity are distinct. it is not useful as an umbrella term synonymous with transgender—not all transgender people are transsexual. It also doesn’t fit well with our more clearly defined and understood common terminology for sexual orientation (heterosexual, homosexual, etc.). This ambiguity, along with the availability of more precise and correct terminology, makes transsexual largely obsolete.

Transvestite: the Latin vestire means “clothe,” so transvestite translates directly to “cross-dresser,” the preferred term. Transvestism can be a form of gender expression, but is not related to sexual orientation, and is not used to refer to transgender people—our traditional understanding of transvestite frequently, if not usually, has referred to cisgender, heterosexual men. The term cross-dresser means the same thing, but is clearer and not as easily confused with other sex- and gender-related terms.

Tranny, Trannie, Shemale, etc. We San Franciscans may have always thought of “tranny” as simply a word for a person who dresses in drag (as in the name of long-running local club Trannyshack), but “tranny” (and other words like it) are more often used as derogative terms for transgender people in the wider world. For this reason, the terms have fallen out of favor.

Cal’s Gender Equity Resource Center has a useful glossary of terms. Also see GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide.