Sunday, November 05, 2006

Please, somebody STOP Bill Safire!

My god. Half of Safire's column today is about phrases like food porn and apartment porn. Wikipedia's entry actually gets at the point of this being a visual substitute for the real thing, vicarious enjoyment, etc., which sounds dead on to me. But get this:
As a kind of nominative suffix, porn is in.
OK, Bill, look, it's like this, see: Words, they have, like, meanings. Nominative, for example, means "marking a subject of a verb", as in indicating the 'nominative' case (in languages with cases like Yiddish, Latin, or Kujamaat Jóola), etc. (It has a couple of other less common meanings, but nothing like what you're aiming for.) We have lots of nominalizing suffixes in English, like -er, which can be added to virtually any verb to make a noun (agentive): to bake ~ baker, to google ~ googler, etc. But this is just a noun that stays a noun, and it seems only to appear with other nouns, in this usage.

And suffix, that is something that attaches to the end of some 'base' (like -er, above). There's a whole string of tests for whether something is an affix (a bound morpheme, as opposed to a clitic or a free word), but this one doesn't pass even a first glance. An affix is really cemented onto its base, under any normal circumstances (and the exceptions are pretty interesting), so that the two can't be interrupted by any intervening material. So, you can't break up googler with other words, but you can easily say this: We're talking here about 'food' -- as it's now called -- 'porn'. Probably, if Safire were careful or lucid enough to check what the words he uses mean while writing his columns, he would have talked about this as a pattern of compounding, one of noun + noun. The word ball works just this way -- basket-, racket-, foot- -- although the bond is presumably tighter there than in his 'suffix'.

Literally anybody who has read an introductory linguistics book or taken an introductory course in the subject should have gotten this right. Would the Times keep on a staff a food writer who couldn't keep the difference between root vegetables and red meat straight? A Middle East reporter who confused Sunni and Shia or couldn't find the Gaza Strip on a map? A travel writer who doesn't know how to book a flight? That's about the level we're talking about here.

Bill, if you don't get help in the Linguistics Dept, please get help somewhere. I can send you some used introductory textbooks if you'd like. Oh yeah, dear New York Times, please fire this embarrassing moron.

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