"-free" goes neutral

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Sun Feb 14 21:34:41 UTC 2010

On Sun, Feb 14, 2010 at 2:51 PM, Seán Fitzpatrick
<grendel.jjf at verizon.net> wrote:
> "Value-free".

And then of course there's "context-free (grammar, language, etc.)",
in use in linguistics since the '50s. Not to mention "content-free":


> -----Original Message-----
> From: Jonathan Lighter [mailto:wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM]
> Sent: Saturday, February 13, 2010 12:18 PM
> Subject: "-free" goes neutral
> We've all bought products that promise to get other products "stain-free,"
> "odor-free," "germ-free," "gunk-free," etc.  "-Free" implies that something
> quite undesirable has been removed.  You are now "free of" that obviously
> undesirable thing.
> Thirty or so ago years ago, a freshman turned in a theme about racism. In it
> he used the phrases "Jew-free" and "black-free."  I decided I needed to have
> a little chat with the lad.
> As it turned out - and it was pretty clear from his theme - he had not meant
> to imply that being "Jew-" or "black-free" was a good thing. In fact, the
> opposite. However, his sense of language was so limited that he had not
> perceived what (I assume) we do, that "-free" means "good riddance."
> Last night CNN (n.b., not Fox) reported that Patrick Kennedy would not seek
> reelection. The panel at the bottom of the screen read "Congress to be
> Kennedy-free."  The anchor explained that his retirement would mean "the
> first Kennedy-free Congress in fifty years."
> Now if we may rise above partisan politics for a moment, I submit that CNN
> did not intend to suggest "good riddance" when it spoke of a "Kennedy-free
> Congress" any more than that student (now old enough to be some journalist's
> father) was a neo-Nazi.
> It meant "a Congress without a Kennedy."
> Google summons up too many "Kennedy-free" hits to examine, but wherever they
> come from, and whatever they mean, CNN must think the affix is neutrally
> descriptive.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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