[Ads-l] words connected to a single provenance

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Aug 30 10:31:28 EDT 2018

> On Aug 30, 2018, at 1:10 AM, Geoffrey Nunberg <nunbergg at GMAIL.COM> wrote:
> First, I think “provenance” was absolutely mot injuste to use here. What’s notable about ‘infamy’ is that it been around for centuries but is associated by most speakers who are familiar with it today with its use in a single context.  That distinguishes it both from well-known quotations and words and proper names associated with the people who coined them, like Churchill’s “Iron Curtain,” or “authorisms."  “Elementary” seems to fit the bill. So do “valediction” and “slouching.”  (I mentioned this to a friend who said, “Well, until I was about seventeen I associated ‘dukedom’ exclusively with Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl.”)
> The reason I asked is that it seems to me that FDR’s speech did a lot to put ‘infamy’ back in circulation for a while. It was a pretty obscure word at the time (Google ngrams shows a 90 percent decline from 1800 to 1940, and Safire notes that it was "It was an unfamiliar word to most people”). But FDR’s speech was heard by 60m people, in 80 percent of American households, and the phrase almost instantly became a shorthand for the Pearl Harbor attacks and then a cliche to trot out for a calamity of any size, particularly when truncated to “day of infamy.” 
> My theory is that the spike inhibited the reanalysis of ‘infamous’ as ‘in’ + ‘famous’, with ‘in’ as a kind of intensifying prefix as many people take it to be in ‘inflammable’. (The logic is laid out in a scene from Three Amigos https://is.gd/36xebD). I think it’s unlikely that anyone who is familiar with FDR's use of ‘infamy' would be tempted to assume that ‘infamous’ is other than pejorative. So the spread of the newer usage is a sign that those words, not surprisingly, have been slipping from the collective memory. This isn’t to say that people who don’t make the FDR association will necessarily get ‘infamous’ wrong, but that the diminishing number of ones who do will get it right. 

Hmmm.  Not sure about your take on “inflammable”, or on “in-“ ever being reanalyzed as an intensifying prefix outside of SNL skits.  The earliest uses of “inflammable”—and indeed the only ones currently attested in the “not fully updated” OED entry, derive it as an ordinary formation from transitive “inflame”, i.e. ‘capable of being/becoming inflamed’.  It’s the negative that’s the reanalysis, “iN-” ‘not’ + “flammable”.  In “infamous” and “infamy”, of course, the negative prefix was there ab ovo.  So the two chronologies wouldn’t be parallel, but are you just saying that for speakers (including those not named Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, etc.) who have two lexical items “flammable” and “inflammable”, neither of them involving negative “iN-“, there’s a feeling that there must be *some* connotative difference between the two, and that they’ve settled on the “iN-“ being an intensifier? 

Besides the locative in- ‘in(to)’ of Germanic origin and the locative iN- ‘in’ of Latin origin (as in “inflammable”), and of course the negative/privative iN- as in “infamous”, “impossible”, is there really ever an intensifying in- or iN- prefix, or at least one of any productivity?  OED has an entry for in- prefix 4 with the sense ‘exceedingly, very’, but its only examples are 

Old English _indryhten_ most noble, infród very wise, _inhold_ thoroughly loyal; Middle English _inred_ deep red.

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