[Ads-l] sexist "crazy"

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Wed Mar 23 08:19:59 UTC 2016


> On Mar 22, 2016, at 6:48 PM, Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU> wrote:
> 
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: sexist "crazy"
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> 
> And here are the lyrics to the theme song of the aforementioned TV show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriendf:

> http://genius.com/Rachel-bloom-crazy-ex-girlfriend-theme-song-lyrics
> 
> Note the bit that goes:
> 
> [Backup singers]
> She's the crazy ex-girlfriend!
> 
> [Rebecca, speaking]
> That's a sexist term!
> 
> ... There's a definite perception out there...
> 

Throughout all of this discussion, Jon Lighter has insisted that "crazy X" just means, and always means, 'X who is crazy', despite so many people's clear perceptions that there are two different cases of "crazy X", which "feel" quite different. Jon is insisting that all adjectival modification is _subsective_, picking out a subset of the class of things denoted by the head N that have the property denoted by the Adj. It is a very old observation -- one that I have repeated in postings on Language Log and my blog since 2007 -- that this is just wrong, that there are both subsective and appositive modifying adjectives; in appositive modification, the modifier denotes a property that holds for all (in a loose sense of "all") of the things denoted by the head N.

The textbook example is "the industrious Chinese", in contrasting cases like "The industrious Chinese will advance in society, while the others will fall by the wayside" (intersective) vs. "The industrious Chinese have succeeded in transforming their country" (appositive: "all" the  Chinese are industrious).

I have noted that even in cases where the Adj holds for all instances of the N literally *by definition* -- as in "pilotless drones" and "legless earthworms" -- appositive modifiers can be useful in discourse, in that they can remind the hearer or reader of a universal property of the things denoted by the head N. Similarly with cases where the property holds of all instances not by definition but by law, as is the case for "illegal prostitution" in almost all U.S. jurisdictions.

But back to cases that are potentially ambiguous between intersective and appositive modifiers, which is what I now claim is going on with "crazy N". Certainly there are plenty of intersective examples, but there are also notable appositive ones, like "my crazy brother", said by someone who has only one brother (where it's parallel to constructions like "my lunatic of a brother").

Something like "my crazy ex-boyfriend" can be intended, and understood, either way, but "my crazy ex-girlfriend" is very likely to be intended appositively if you're someone who believes that ex-girlfriends are "by definition" crazy, while ex-boyfriends are not -- and your usage is then likely to be be understood as sexist by hearers or readers, because it betrays your belief. (Similarly, "vindictive ex-wife", if you're someoe who believes that ex-wives are "by definition" vindictive, while ex-hubsbands are not.)

Arnold

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