Sunday, December 31, 2006

Safire, bubble boy, on the Year of the Stans

Safire's still in fact-free mode, so there's not too much to report. He dwells on the use of surge with regard to troop increases in Iraq (yawn -- subscribe to ads-l if you want better treatment of that and every other topic he touches on), and along the way, Safire gives his stamp of approval to Bush's grammar when Bush promised …
to report back to you as to whether or not I support a surge or not.
Maybe that's not ungrammatical, from prescriptivist or other perspectives, but I suspect Barbara Wallraff would agree with me that it's not a well-crafted piece of prose. The endorsement was probably Safire's effort at payback for the Big Award from Bush. (But you ain't got no Loggy, now do you, big fellow?)

The column is titled "Year of the Stans" and almost half the column is devoted to this 'neologistic suffix', apparently his way of saying 'productive'. (Reminder, Bill: linguists have worked out pretty good ways of talking about language structure -- just ask one of them instead of making stuff up. LINGUIST has Ask a Linguist, where you can get help. Just please get help.) He gives examples like Trashcanistan, but for several obvious reasons has to skip the far more sharp-edged Dumbfuckistan, a label for the parts of the US that voted for Bush last time around. That term gets almost 1,000 g-hits at this point; see here for a map.

The interesting point is less that it's productive (how many productive suffixes does English have?), than that it's pretty fully degrammaticalized: A common placename element has not only been sliced off to form a productive suffix but also an independent word, one which Safire accepts. (I'm speaking from the synchronic point of view of English -- the suffix has a clear Indo-European history, *steH2- 'place', meaning 'country' in the examples at hand. It shows up in enough place names that people basically recapitulate the history and break it off into a word again.)

But Bubble Bill is a few years behind in several respects. Crucially, this has hardly been the Year of the Stans. They got a lot of attention with the break-up of the Soviet Union, and I recall the term being used then. But he also dates the free lexeme (that basically means 'word', Bill) only back to 1982 (taking the suffix back to the 1940s). The OED Online has it from 1932 (Times 7 Sept. 13/6: When all the land in the Stans is collectivized in cotton plantations, say the Soviet governors, then the wheat, meat and vegetables are to come over from the Ukraine, Siberia, and the Caucasus. ). Even the Onion ran a piece a few years on the Stans, though I can't find it on their website.

Why be so intellectually isolated, Bill? Get out a little -- talk to some linguists, read a little more broadly, even check the OED Online, google a little more energetically. It'd be good for you.

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