"MOTHER FUCKER" transparent? [was: Percentage point--missed word in dictionaries]

Thomas Paikeday t.paikeday at SYMPATICO.CA
Thu Dec 27 20:59:10 UTC 2001

Victoria Neufeldt wrote:

> . . .  Bilingual and learners' dictionaries, especially, need to
> provide information about collocations.

I agree with Victoria, but what is the dividing line between learners
and experts (not to speak of the line that divides collocations from
traditional lexical items like idioms and phrases)?

Here's an interesting story about a professor of English who fell
between the two stools:

This professor, may he rest in peace, had a doctorate in English from
the University of London. His dissertation on a minor Victorian author
was published by the author's cousin who ran a book publishing company
in Australia. His editors apparently did a good copy-editing job on the
manuscript. The text was flawless as far as I could see, but for obvious
reasons, they dared not touch the Dedication, which read: "To my mother
for her inordinate affection [to me]..." The editors probably thought,
Hey, if something had been going on between mother and son, who are we
to put in our two cents worth?

Now, as all English experts and others (including learners beyond a
certain grade level) know, "inordinate affection/love," is a
collocational phrase that means something bad, very bad, in the contexts
in which it is used. (Questions of sexual orientation would not be
relevant). It occurs frequently in ascetical Christian religious
literature, as in the socalled "Rodriguez" (Rodrigues?) volumes.
"Inordinate," by morphology and definition, is negative in meaning
("disorderly or immoderate") and Rodriguez would be referring to
homosexual and such affections, as betwen religious who have taken the
vow of chastity; "particular friendship" is another term referring to
the same concept in the above contexts. Incestuous love is included in
the meaning of the term.

When the phrase is applied to one's mother, I suppose the
uncollocational semi-transparent idiomatic term "mother fucker" comes to
mind. But it could be argued (English word composition being what it is)
that the phrase doesn't make it transparent whether "mother" is the
fucker or the fuckee. I suppose "m.f." is entered in most dictionaries
of slang because of this nontransparency.

If you are curious about how this egregious error (call it
collocational, idiomatic, whatever) came about, the professor and his
mother spoke a "mother tongue" in which "love" collocates with
"limitless" (positive sense). "Inordinate love/affection" was probably
the most idiomatic translation he could think up of the original phrase,
"limitless love" being not even a good collocation. So, was the
professor still a learner, an expert by virtue of his doctorate in
English, or just bilingual?

The main point of my story, as Victoria Neufeldt says, is that
dictionaries should include a collocation "if it is common enough (and
if warranted by the size of the particular dictionary, the intended

Happy Holidays.

TOM PAIKEDAY, lexicographer
The User's(r) Webster Dictionary, 2000
ISBN: 0-920865-03-8 (cservice at genpub.com)

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