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Double whammy! The dysphemistic euphemism implied in unVables such as unmentionables, unprintables, undesirables

Chris Smith

Abstract

The starting point for this paper is the realization that the classic euphemism unmentionables rests upon three word formation processes, which have each been proven to be individually compatible with euphemistic effect. Consider the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entry for the plural noun unmentionable (1823): “b) n. pl. Trousers. (Cf. inexpressible n. 2) Also, underpants, and (chiefly joc.) underwear, esp. women’s. (1823); - c) n. A person or thing not to be mentioned (by name). Chiefly pl. (1928)”. The existence of a whole class of euphemistic unVables built on the same model, such as unprintables (OED, first occurrence 1860 in the sense of trousers), untouchables (lexicalized 1909 in the sense of “Indian underclass”), unspeakables (lexicalized, 1823 in the sense of “ineffable being”), has motivated research into the role of A>N conversion, metonymy and the unVable double affixation on the final connotations of the expression. The purpose of the paper is to present a case study of unVables: by producing a list of attested unVables, I investigate the correlation between lexical complexity and lexical creativity and euphemism. The data collected shows that, despite no longer being lexicalized, the unVables metonyms continue to be used in a context of lexical expressiveness. The paper takes the view that the position of unVables on the positive end of the X-phemism pole has shifted over time to metalinguistically produce a dysphemistic effect. This shift can partly be justified by changing perceptions of taboo areas, but also, crucially, to the inherent deontic shift of the unVable derivative. Ultimately, the use of unVables today tends to lay focus on the self-censure at the heart of the expression, thus creating a contrast between the minimizing features of euphemism and the maximizing features of a focusing process.

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Foreword

1Expressions such as unmentionables (first occurrence in 1823 denoting undergarments) are notoriously euphemistic, as indicated in OED. Allan and Burridge [2006: 238] cite inexpressibles, unmentionables and unhintables as Victorian euphemisms for legs, trousers and underclothing respectively. Unmentionables is one of the most common euphemistic expressions around, and has even been appeared in the title of several books, such as Lawrence [1973] and Keyes [2010]. Nevertheless, to my knowledge, there hasn’t been any extensive study into the relationship between this specific word morphology and euphemism. Much recent research into euphemism has been discourse-oriented, showing that a wide variety of lexical sets exists across a number of languages for taboo topics, as illustrated by, for instance, the many euphemistic synonyms for underclothes, including smalls, scanties, unmentionables, unwhisperables, and so forth. Allan and Burridge [2006: 243] underscore three main prolific taboo areas, all relating to the basic human condition:

  • 1 In Allan and Burridge [2006] ‘X-phemism’ is used to refer to the combined set of alternative expres (...)

the vocabulary for bodily effluvia, sex and tabooed body parts manifests significantly more synonymy than one encounters anywhere else in the English lexicon; there are literally thousand of X-phemisms1.

2Rather than adding to the many interesting onomasiological forays into euphemism in discourse (medicalese, legalese, journalese), this paper takes a semasiological approach to the question of euphemism. The purpose of this paper is to investigate the X-phemistic behaviour of negative deverbal adjective>noun conversions. It is widely accepted that euphemism is not exclusively associated with one specific word formation process. Yet, it has been shown to be compatible with an impressive array of linguistic strategies, including affixation, metonymy and conversion (Bonhomme [2006: 160], Tournier 2007), negation (Tournier 2007) and hyperonymy or supercategorization (Wierzbicka 1988), as well as truncation and circumlocution (Allan 2006, Tournier 2007).

3Euphemisms are created by circumlocution, phonological modification, extending the meaning of a near-synonym (thus reintroducing rarely used words into the basic vocabulary), borrowing from another language, or even by coining a new word. Allan [2006: 127-128]

  • 2 Orthophemism (Greek ortho-’proper, straight, normal’, cf. orthodox) is a term we have coined in or (...)

4Without calling into question the historically euphemistic effect of such expressions as unmentionables, undesirables, unprintables, untouchables, this paper examines the dysphemistic potential of the unVable model in contemporary English. Allan and Burridge [2006] suggest that euphemism is by definition an alternative choice of expression, possibly intentional or conventional, over a neutral orthophemism (or ‘straight talking’ in Allan and Burridge [2006: 1]2), thus placing euphemism at the centre of affective or modalized communication. The aim is to determine how the euphemism-dysphemism poles can become reversed when the intentions behind the use of an expression are at odds with the connotations of the expression.

5The first part of this paper presents a case study into the structure and semantics of unVable, using a modest corpus of some 150 expressions retrieved from lexical sources. The cross-referencing of these adjectives with the occurrences provided by BYU-BNC produces a short corpus of substantivized unVables, which are then described semantically in context. This line of investigation brings to the fore the unquestionable affinity of the highly modalized double affixed adjective with both substantivization and euphemism. A second part examines the correlation between part-for-whole metonymy and X-phemism, while considering the expressive paradox behind the use of unVables.

1. The structure and semantics of unVable

1.1. Frequency of A>N conversion

6Conversion is a word formation mechanism allowing for the shift in grammatical category of a word. Crystal’s [1992] definition includes a comment on the productivity of the process, defining conversion as:

A term often used in the study of word-formation to refer to the derivational process whereby an item comes to belong to a new word-class without the addition of an affix. [...] other terms for this phenomenon, which is very common in English, include “zero derivation” and “functional shift”.

7According to Tournier [2007: 170], although N>V is by far the most common conversion subtype, A>N conversion now accounts for around 6% of overall word formation. Furthermore, in recent decades data suggests that A>N conversion, which represents overall the 3rd most productive conversion type, has been gaining ground. Tournier [2007: 198] indicates that A>N conversion has risen from 20% of all converted words in the past to 31% of newly converted words.

8A previous study by Smith [2005] of lexicalized A>N conversions attested in OED [1996] for adjectives beginning with D, H and N produced the following data in the table below. The fact that the proportion of -able adjectives susceptible to conversion does not seem very high from these figures (9.7% of total occurrences) can be explained by two factors:

  • Firstly, -able is such a productive suffix (Bauer 2001) that many derivatives are not lexicalized in dictionaries, including OED. This poses a problem for the identification of non lexicalized converted adjectives in a corpus. For instance, a word like unconceivables is unattested yet is found in a literary corpus. It could of course be considered a hapax, but hapaxes are representations of the evolution of word formation, especially when the meaning is readily retrievable (as is arguably the case of unconceivables in occurrence [3], see 1.3.1).

  • Secondly, the number of lexicalized A>N conversions is far smaller than the number of actually occurring substantivized adjectives (SA). The BYU-BNC search of unVables has verified this (see 1.2.2).

Figure 1: Rate of substantivization of adjectives according to their derivational suffixes (Smith 2005)

Letter D

Letter H

Letter N

suffixes

% SA

Non SA

SA

Non SA

SA

Non SA

SA

Total ADJ.

-AL

17.7

144

32

154

24

82

26

462

-AN

39.3

37

25

59

54

37

45

257

-ABLE

9.7

135

13

38

3

22

5

216

-ATE

3.7

39

12

1

53

-AR

13.3

5

12

1

9

3

30

-IC

18.4

176

38

296

71

129

27

737

-INE

31.4

6

3

18

5

3

35

-ISH

0.8

51

44

34

1

130

-IVE

21.2

78

31

9

3

22

8

151

-OID

47.7

12

9

18

17

4

5

65

-OUS

0

133

168

67

368

-Y

15.4

148

20

76

18

56

13

331

-LATINATE

47.3

19

14

17

26

13

4

93

-ED/EN

3.8

643

26

429

14

186

10

1308

-ENT/ANT

9.1

333

44

160

3

127

15

682

Ø

22.2

171

34

146

39

63

36

489

TOTAL

2156

289

1658

279

869

203

% SA

11.82

14.256

18.936

1.2. Frequency of occurrence of unVables

1.2.1. Why search for inflected forms?

9Not all A>N conversions are equal in terms of the way they represent meaning. Traditionally, nouns refer whereas adjectives attribute properties (Jespersen [1921], Wierzbicka [1988], Smith [2005]). The realization that there are degrees to which adjectives access nounhood prompted a proposal in Smith [2005] to devise a scale of A>N conversion. The scale of conversion follows the individuation scale used for assessing types of nouns in Wierzbicka [1988]. It also takes into account inflectional evidence of word class conversion, such as the genitive and the plural inflections. The scale ranges from adjectives which continue to behave predicatively on the one hand (the rich, the poor, the unemployed), to adjectives which access ultimate nounhood, i.e. they have the ability to refer individually to a member of a group (an oral, an original, an eccentric, today’s special). The first group are considered partially converted as explained by Poutsma [1929: 365], whereas the second group tend to be analyzed as an ellipsis of the noun.

When an adjective is partially converted into a noun, it is still felt to a certain extent as an adnominal word, i.e. we are more or less distinctly sensible of a noun being understood after it, wherefore it lacks most of the [above] characteristics, i.e. that of being inflected in the plural.

  • 3 Many totally converted adjectives are practically pluralia tantum.” Poutsma [1929: 368]. By this, (...)

10This leaves the inflected adjectives as the only verifiable A>N conversions. Smith [2005] proposes that this group, illustrated by such expressions as valuables (valuable items), leftovers (leftover food and drink), smalls (underwear), pearly whites (teeth), the blues (music), greens (green plants or vegetables) etc, fall in between partial conversion, to use Poutsma’s [1929] term, and complete nominalization. The unVable A>N conversions under scrutiny here all fall into this group (Poutsma [1929]3, Wierzbicka [1988], Smith [2005]), suggesting the compatibility of the plural with the cognitive representation of the denotatum provided by these expressions. I will develop the semantic conceptualization of the plural in my semantic analysis of unVables in 1.3.

1.2.2. Data from BYU-BNC

11I have compiled a list of lexicalized unVable adjectives listed in Merriam-Webster online, producing 150 in total. I then searched manually for occurrences in the BYU-BNC corpus for these adjectives, followed by a search for the inflected form unVables. The search for the inflected form is motivated both by the conclusions drawn in Smith [2005] on the role of the plural in total conversion, and on the unequivocal noun status of unVables, which rules out ellipsis as a possible counter-argument. I have discounted denominal unNables (such as unseasonable) and have chosen not to take into account allomorphic inVible derivatives such as inexpressibles, irrepressibles.

  • 4 The attested converted adjectives appear in bold characters.

12Out of 150 unVable adjectives listed in the dictionary, 82% (123) are attested in the singular (as adjectives) in BYU-BNC, and only a handful (13, i.e. under 10%) are attested in the inflected form4. There are however huge differences in frequency of occurrence of adjectives, ranging from 1 occurrence for unadoptable to 983 occurrences for unreasonable. Smith’s [2005] corpus provides a few occurrences of A>N conversions where none were found in BYU-BNC (unspeakables, unconceivables). Google also provides some occurrences of unVables, as unwhisperables, unthinkables, unutterables. The table below provides the frequency of occurrence found in the BNC. The attested A>N conversions appear in bold, and potential unVable candidates appear in italics. I based the potential projected appearance of the unVables expressions on their ability to refer back to themselves metalinguistically, which I will develop further on.

Figure 2: Frequency of occurrence of unVable and unVables in BYU-BNC and Smith (2005)

  • 5 In Bybee [1985: 81] “One of the most persistent undefinables in morphology is the distinction betwe (...)
  • 6 Lexicalized in OED and referenced in Probert Encyclopeadia; British slang for underwear.
  • 7 Lexicalized in OED as a noun, in the sense of “unmentionables” (slang) and in Routledge Dictionary (...)

un-V-able

Singular

occurrences

Inflected occurrences

listed adjectives in MW

BYU-BNC

BYU-BNC

Smith 2005

Google

unadaptable

0

0

unadoptable

1

0

unaffordable

104

0

unamenable

1

0

unamiable

0

0

unanalyzable

0

0

unassimilable

7

0

unattainable

104

0

unattributable

7

0

unavailable

377

1

unavoidable

395

0

unbreachable

4

0

unbreakable

57

0

unbridgeable

39

0

unbuildable

0

0

unburnable

0

0

uncapturable

0

0

uncatchable

4

0

uncategorizable

0

0

unchallengeable

35

0

uncharitable

35

0

uncheckable

1

0

unchewable

1

0

unclassifiable

11

1

uncollectible

unconceivable

0

0

1

uncontainable

9

0

uncontrollable

212

0

uncopyrightable

2

0

uncorrectable

1

0

uncountable

10

0

uncrushable

2

0

undanceable

0

0

undecidable

4

2

undecipherable

3

0

undefinable

13

0

15

undeliverable

1

0

undependable

5

0

undescribable

0

0

undesirable

617

24

1

undetectable

46

0

undeterminable

0

0

undiagnosable

0

0

undigestible

0

0

undiscoverable

1

0

undisputable

1

0

undoable

1

0

undoubtable

0

0

uneatable

10

0

uneducable

0

0

unelectable

16

0

unendurable

0

0

unenforceable

130

0

unenviable

85

0

unescapable

0

0

unexcitable

1

0

unexplainable

10

0

unfeasible

12

0

unfilmable

2

0

unflyable

1

0

unforeseeable

35

0

unforgettable

180

0

unforgivable

89

0

unfulfillable

1

0

ungraspable

5

0

unguessable

1

0

unidentifiable

44

0

unignorable

5

0

uninhabitable

37

0

uninsurable

10

0

uninterpretable

9

0

unjustifiable

91

0

unkillable

4

0

unlearnable

0

0

unlikeable

8

0

unlistenable

4

0

unlovable

19

0

unmanageable

91

0

unmarketable

2

0

unmatchable

7

0

unmeasurable

9

0

unmemorable

25

0

unmentionable

46

8

unmissable

20

0

unmixable

2

0

unmovable

2

0

unnameable

4

0

unnegotiable

0

0

unnoticeable

15

0

unobjectionable

21

0

unobservable

27

5

unobtainable

66

0

unopenable

3

0

unpardonable

18

0

unpassable

0

0

unpatentable

1

0

unperformable

0

0

unplaceable

2

0

unplausible

0

0

unplayable

33

0

unpredictable

674

0

unprogrammable

0

0

unpronounceable

26

0

unprintable

20

0

1

unprovable

13

0

unquantifiable

36

0

unquenchable

23

0

unquestionable

53

0

unreachable

21

0

unreadable

133

0

unrealizable

8

0

unreasonable

983

0

unreclaimable

1

0

unrecognizable

51

0

unreconcilable

2

0

unrecoverable

5

0

unrecyclable

1

0

unredeemable

3

0

unreliable

478

1

unremarkable

132

0

unremovable

2

0

unrepeatable

28

0

unresolvable

13

0

unrespectable

12

0

unreturnable

0

0

unreviewable

5

0

unrideable

3

0

unsal(e)able

33

0

unscalable

1

0

unsellable

4

0

unshakable

15

0

unspeakable

108

1

1

unsurpassable

8

0

unsusceptible

4

0

unsustainable

77

0

untam(e)able

2

0

unteachable

7

0

untestable

14

0

unthinkable

351

0

attested6

untillable

0

0

untraceable

25

0

untranslatable

10

0

untouchable

67

33

ununderstandable

0

0

unusable

90

0

unutterable

17

0

attested7

unverifiable

7

0

unviable

18

0

unwatchable

3

0

unwearable

3

0

unwhisperable

0

0

attested

unwinnable

10

0

unworkable

148

0

1.2.3. How to account for the infrequency of unVables

13Double affixing (un+V+able) followed by conversion (Adj>N) is bound to exert multiple constraints on the final expression. It has nevertheless been noted (Dalton-Puffer 1996) that the negative affix un- and the modal adjectival suffix -able are both very compatible, and tend to co-occur frequently in languages as noted by Bybee [1985:176]. As for the conversion process, as is apparent from the figures above, it selects only a small number of adjectives for substantivization. However, Smith’s [2005] study of the effect of adjective morphology on the conversion rate tends to suggest a degree of correlation, however modest, between the -able suffix and A>N conversion. One can in fact assume that the relative affinity between substantivization and affixing is probably far more relevant than the data in figure 2 suggest. The difficulty with studying lexicographical sources, as was the case here, is that conversion is such a productive and spontaneous mechanism that most A>N conversions are not yet necessarily lexicalized (unspeakables only has 2 hits, but makes perfect sense and does not have the surprise factor of mere hapaxes). Of course, this is with the exception of some older converted adjectives which have become more or less obsolete such as unwhisperables (first occurrrence 1837 according to OED).

  • 8 Many thanks to Kate Burridge for pointing out that saddleable is now attested, and can be found in (...)

14The minute number of lexicalized or BNC attested nominalized unVables is all the more remarkable as deverbal adjectival -able derivation is remarkably productive. General agreement favours the word formation rule as given by Lyons [1978]: [Vtr + able= Adj]. However, as argued in Plag [1999: 86], the productivity of [Vtr + able= Adj] may have been overestimated in view of the impossibility of *saddleable8, *doublable, *wriggleable (examples cited in Plag [1999: 86] and taken from Szymanek [1985: 102]). The latter adjectives are not attested in Webster, nor OED, and produce no results in BYU-BNC. It seems that not all transitive verbs are compatible with -able derivation, although it is questionable. Plag [1999: 86] proposes that the restriction is phonological in so far as “-able does not attach to verbs containing a postconsonantal liquid.”

15This phonological restriction may not entirely solve the problem of the constraints on Vable formation: what accounts for the possibility of a complex compound derivative such as knee-paddle-able? Furthermore, other adjectives such as *unfoolable remain impossible (according to my judgement). Lyons [1978: 528] agrees with Hasan’s [1971] position that “only transitive verbs which can realize the process REACTION in a transitive clause but where the role AFFECTED can only be mapped onto the subject.” Although Plag [2003] does not take sides, indicating morphosyntactic constraints remain unclear, his analysis of the semantics of -able adjectives echoes Lyons’s [1978: 530] position that “adjectives can be interpreted in terms of a modalized passive phrase, the modality being that of ability or possibility”. Plag [2003: 94] argues that -able adjectives are inherently modalized expressions, relating to either epistemic or root modality (possibility or capacity/ability).

The semantics of deverbal -able forms seem to involve two different cases, which have been described as ‘capable of being Xed’ (cf. breakable, deterrable, readable), and ‘liable or disposed to X’ (cf. agreeable, perishable, variable; changeable can have both meanings). What unites the two patterns is that in both cases the referent of the noun modified by the -able adjective is described as a potentially non volitional participant in an event. In this respect, -able closely resembles episodic -ee. Plag [2003: 94]

16Dalton-Puffer [1996: 35-36] also emphasizes the modal meaning behind the -able suffix: but rather than dwelling over the semantic domain of passivity, the focus is on the affinity between the semantic building blocks of possibility and negation:

It seems to me that possibility and negation are more strongly linked to each other than passivity is to either of them, and I would take this as a first indicator that the passivity element is less central to the function of ABLE […] than the other two elements. Negation and possibility both encode the speaker’s view of a particular proposition or a particular portion of reality, which puts them both into the circle of modality. Bybee (1985: 176-178) also notes an affinity of negation and other mood meanings, both cross-linguistically and with special reference to affixing. In the case of ABLE […] the most likely scenario is, then, that the “possibility” meaning attracts negative meanings which can be derivational (unVable) or syntactic (NOT Vable).

17In stressing the affinity between negation and possibility, Dalton-Puffer [1996] makes clear that unVable adjectives are heavily marked with mood meanings, infusing them with heightened expressiveness. Vable adjectives encode possibility or likelihood, but there is another possible interpretation, that of deontic modality, as in the mandative construction this bill is payable immediately. Deontic modality is “associated with the social functions of permission and obligation”, as underlined by Bybee [1995: 4].

  • 9 Interestingly, Tournier [2007: 287] refers to the sometimes deontological function of euphemism, to (...)

18From the data collected, the semantics of the combined derivative unVable appears particularly compatible with the deontic interpretation. Amongst the 13 unVables listed, the meaning of -able can indeed be perceived as deontic9, in particular when V refers to the act of utterance. Out of the 13 unVables listed, at least 6 refer to such verbs as mention, utter, whisper, print, think, speak. Indeed, according to OED, unmentionable applies to that which “cannot or should not be mentioned”, and in the plural can refer to “a person or thing not to be mentioned (by name)”. As for unprintable, the OED definition states “not fit to be printed” but the deontic shift to “which should not be printed” is not far off, as is evidenced by the corpus illustration [8] (see further on).

1.3. Semantic underspecification of un-V-ables

1.3.1. Polysemy

19The corpus data shows that the nature of the denotata referred to by unVables is variable: unmentionables can refer to underwear, genitalia, people, or any group of things or people which are considered unsuitable for mention. The retrieval of meaning for the occurrences compiled in BNC and Smith [2005] is largely contextual. Smith [2005] shows that inflected substantivized adjectives are polysemic, but tend to undergo semantic specification in context. Various means of semantic specification are available, including enumeration of subcategories falling under the expression as in [5b], [6a] or [6d], pre- or post-modification as in [5d], [6e] or [11d], or even categorization as in [11a]. Other clues to reference are the function of unVables as an argument in a predicate as in [10a]. These contextual elements are parts of a frame which serve to pinpoint the meaning of the expression. In contexts where no information specifies the nature of the denotatum, the lexicalized meaning applies by default; the term unmentionables refers to underwear as in [6c], untouchables to a caste in [11b]. The following table lists the meaning and frames for the occurrences retrieved in BNC, which are reproduced in full in context below the table.

Figure 3: the polysemy of unVables

unVable

Denotatum

Contextual frames

1. anavailables

-individuals deemed ‘unavailable’

not lexicalized as noun in OED

[1] chosen/ Irish tour to New Zealand/ captain = rugby frame

2. unclassifiables

-satellite habitats which cannot be classified

[2] satellite habitats/ casinos/crates =satellite frame

3. unconceivables

- couples who cannot conceive

(not lexicalized as noun in OED)

[3] frenzied/ relax/ do it =sex frame

4. undecidables

OED 1965

“Something that cannot be decided; that which is undecidable.”

[4a] dialectical/ reasoning/ human thought

[4b] semantics/discipline/scientists

5. undesirables

-people or items whose presence is not wanted

[5a] not belong/ city

[5b] motorbikes/wheelchair/passage/ barrier

[5c] press/ undesirable/ offering

[5d] parents/ woman/ pursuers

[5e] police/ jail/

6. unmentionables

-underclothes

-genitalia

-thoughts

-things or people which should not be mentioned

[6a] activist/ Greenpeace/

[6b] hit/ member of the opposition/

[6c] girls/ gentleman/ view/ up

[6d] nits, ringworm, fleas

[6e] not tell

7. unobservables

-concepts/entities/ variables which cannot be observed

[7a]+ [7b] behaviouralist/science/realist inductive/theory/

[7c] Popper/hypotheses/

[7d] consciousness/behaviourist tenet

[7e] models/ data/ estimators/ policies

8. unprintables

-taboo swearwords which cannot/should not be printed

(lexicalized in the sense of trousers according to OED)

[8] McEnroe/ tennis/ shout

9. unreliables

-unreliable political partisans (not lexicalized as noun in OED)

[9] Glasgow/ Republicans/ shoot

10. unspeakables

- people / things who/which should not be spoken of

[10a] living next door

[10b] cross-dressing/ taboo

11. untouchables

-caste of people who should not be touched OED “A Hindu of a hereditary low caste, contact with whom was regarded as defiling members of higher castes. Also transf. and fig. Cf. Harijan n.”

-more widely social outcasts

[11a] job/ reservation/ caste

[11b] discrimination/caste/movement

[11c] Indian/dirty/lower/ caste

[11d] Britain/snobbery/golf/ boots/ ridicule

12. unwhisperables

OED. “1837, trousers, slang.”

[12] buying a pair/

13. unutterables

OED, “an unutterable thing 1788, or trousers 1843”

[13a] betray/ taboo

[13b] short/ clothing

20The occurrences retrieved in BNC, OED and Smith [2005] are as follows:

  • 10 From Will Self, How the dead live. In Smith [2005] corpus.
  • 11 From Marian Keyes, Last Chance Saloon, 1999. In Smith [2005] corpus.
  • 12 From Stephen Fry, The Hippopotamus 1995. Corpus Smith [2005].

[1] And adding to the problems for the Irish tour to New Zealand — an expedition that captain Phil Danaher referred to as ‘a learning experience’— is the list of ‘unavailables’ which has almost rivalled the list of those chosen.
[2] Which is why, by the time of our story, there was a tangle of some two hundred satellite habitats, including five dozen tubes; fourteen platforms; seven wheels; sixteen miscellaneous
unclassifiables, including casinos on immobilized system ships, crates, and permanent accidents; and three ziggurats of the Eladeldi -- all in Terran orbit, besides the poor old neglected Moon
[3] They may’ve capitulated and gone for adoption, but wasn’t it often the case that once this happened the frenzied unconceivables relaxed enough to do it? 10
[4a] Dialectical reason encounters such products as
undecidables: aporias -- because they seem to be at once the results of a communal enterprise while at the same time bearing witness to the fact that this enterprise never existed except as the inhuman reverse side of two opposed actions in which each aims to destroy the other.
[4b] But this history is easily overlooked, as is the modern computer’s capacity to accommodate “semantic”
undecidables, in scientists’ eagerness to construct a myth of the internal consistency and autonomy of their discipline
[5a] They weren’t wanted. An instant of depression, of diminishment. They didn’t belong to the city, but they needed to be here. “I think she thinks we’re
undesirables”. Milo took care to sound cheerful. 11
[5b] This split barrier is an ideal solution for keeping out
undesirables such as motorbikes while giving room for wheelchairs to pass through easily.
[5c] By August 1921 he was ‘inundated by the press and all sorts of undesirables have offered things’.
[5d] She had tapped into the rich vein of local “
undesirables”, as her parents would call them.
[5e] Nicholson entered the scheme of things when Captain America and Billy the Kid are put into jail when a police force regards them as mere
undesirables.
[6a] Jane was amused, however, to see that a whole large room was devoted to ‘activist’(said with a sort of spitting intonation) literature: Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and other
unmentionables.
[6b] Similarly, the chorus from the terraces whenever a member of the opposition was hit in the
unmentionables and was being approached by the trainer with magic sponge and slopping bucket, was: ‘Nay lad, don’t wash ‘em.
[6c] The girls declined their gentlemanly offer to allow them over first, realising that once at the top, the boys would have a beautiful view of their
unmentionables.
[6d] A litany of nits, ringworm, fleas and
unmentionables
[6e] And the and the little
unmentionables you don’t want to tell me about.
[7a] Now right, those parameters that we that we will learn will get this model in the end which contains only observable variables, only those, so it will contain prices, actual prices and actual supply alright. There’s no ex expectations in there, no unobservables.
[7b] When Behaviouralists objected to the presence of
unobservables in Realist theories, they did so in the name of science and the same basic idea of what science demands.
[7c] This is a purely inductive method, tempting both for its simplicity and because it does without
unobservables. Popper insists that neither facts nor hypotheses simply obtrude themselves. .... Thus it is fine to think in terms of unobservable entities, provided that such theorizing results in statements capable of being tested
[7d] Ryle’s examination of the relation between mind and body should not be confused with the behaviourist tenet that all “
unobservables”, such as consciousness, should be eliminated from the programme of psychology. J. B. Watson in 1914 and other behaviourist thinkers (Hull, Skinner) believed that an acquired behaviour element, the conditioned reflex for example, could be made to account for all behaviour, because such an element could be treated as a “building block” in theory much in the same way that nineteenth-century physicists used atoms to build up a theory of matter.
[7e] However, although many policy prescriptions are based on models estimated using such data, for example in taxation and labour supply, the properties of estimators for these models rely heavily on strong and usually untested stochastic assumptions. This importance of the stochastic specification plays a critical role in cross-section models in particular wherever the data under study suffer from censoring, truncation or grouping. In such common situations, the properties of the estimators depend crucially, for example, on the whole shape of the assumed distribution of
unobservables.
[8] McEnroe shouted assorted
unprintables.
[9] The book has explained that, having been a murderer of
unreliables for the Republicans, he was shot at by a rival and went straight back to Glasgow.)
[10a] The Project, as you insist on calling it, has kept me from drinking at lunch-time, from drooling after unattainable women and from quarrelling with the unspeakables next door12.
[10b] He held out his hand to his junior master and composed his face into a solemn expression of trust. “Very well, Wilson,” he said. “And now, I beg you, I beseech you, to reassure me that you are not also one of those
unspeakables of which I think we both know the name only too well.” Robert could not think what he meant by this. What else was he supposed to have been up to? Cross-dressing, perhaps?
[11a] On top of the existing reservations for “untouchables” castes, this brought the total proportion of reserved jobs to 49.5 per cent of all public-service posts.
[11b] The immediate aim was to open the roads to and from the temple to untouchables, but it proved to be a symbol of the movement to eliminate discrimination against
untouchables in all spheres of life and a pointer to the need to abolish the caste system.
[11c] It is best known for persecuting Indian peasants, especially the lower castes or “
Untouchables”, who may have stolen from a neighbour or have demonstrated dirty habits.
[11d] On their forays to Britain they employed ridicule against the snobbery of golf clubs which insisted that the golfing
untouchables must change their boots in the pro’s shop.
[11e] Hindu society in traditional India was divided into five main strata: four varnas or castes, and a fifth group, the outcaste, whose members were known as
untouchables.
[11f] He accepted the devotion of a prostitute who anointed his feet with costly perfume, and he dined out on a number of occasions with tax collectors and sinners, who represented the social outcasts — the “
untouchables” of the day.
[12]
OED 1837 Knickerbocker Mag. Mar. 288 How could he see about procuring himself a new pair of unwhisperables from his host, when [etc.].
[13a] OED 1797 A. M. Bennett Beggar Girl II. xii. 226 Rosa did not faint, or betray any of the unutterables some of our young readers may expect.
[13b] OED 1843 I. F. Romer Rhone I. 322 His short unutterables, garnished down the seams with silver buttons.

1.3.2. The meaning of the plural: pluralia mostly A>N

21As described above, the A>N conversions compiled here are inflected. Since the inflected form was deliberately selected, the next step is to verify whether these unVables are attested in the indefinite singular form (discounting the abstract or generic THE+ADJ form). A part-of-speech search in BNC for singular forms provided the following results. Out of the 13 attested unVables listed in figure 3, 2 occur in the indefinite singular- these are untouchable and undesirable, which refer to a single individual of the class. The other A>N conversions, seem to occur primarily in the plural, tending to confirm Wierzbicka’s theory [1988: 476] that “adjectives are much easier to use as nouns (i.e. in referring expressions) in the plural than in the singular.” Reference to a singular individual by saying ?*an unmentionable, ?*an unspeakable, ?*an unavailable, or referring to a swearword as ?*an unprintable seems less likely than the plural, and could be perceived as an ellipsis of the underlying head noun rather than a conversion.

  • 13 Every grammatical construction encodes a certain meaning, which can be revealed and rigorously sta (...)

22I take the view that morphosyntax is not arbitrary and that the absence of singular denotation is meaningful. Instead, as posited in Wierzbicka [1988: 3], changes in morphosyntax reflect changes in meaning, not extensional meaning, but rather changes in conceptualization of the denotatum13. Accordingly, singularia tantum (nouns with a singular form only) and pluralia tantum (nouns with a plural form only) express categories which reflect cognitive representations of the denotatum, which are largely culture and language specific. The following table uses Wierzbicka’s formal semantic classification of nouns [1988: 555-560] in order to determine the meaning of the plural in A>N conversions. A semantic analysis indicates unVables seem to fall under 3 main pluralia types:

  • Some unVables refer to groups of heterogenous things which are subsumed under a supercategory such as miscellaneous unclassifiables [2], unmentionables in [6e]: these are “things of different kinds which are in the same place, for the same reason, one doesn’t think of them as things one would count together because they are not of the same kind and because some of them may not be separate things” in the words of Wierzbicka [1988: 559 ];

  • A small group of unVables refer to dual objects: unmentionables referring to pants [6a] or male genitalia [6b];

  • Finally, seemingly pointing to the anthropocentric nature of language and metonymy, the most common occurrence of unVables (15 occurrences out of 30) denotes a group of human beings which are not considered as separate individuals, but rather as members of a group – unspeakables, untouchables, unreliables, unavailables, undesirables. Alternatively, it seems the denotatum can frequently be a word or an utterance (unprintables). I will return to this issue later in part 2.

Figure 4: Formal classification of plural nouns according to Wierzbicka [1988: 555-560]

Nouns

Formal semantic classification

Type8

Pluralia only occurring in the frame “a pair of”- names of dual objects (scissors goggles, shades)

Type9

Pluralia only - names of groups of objects and/or “stuffs” (leftovers groceries)

Type10

Pluralia MOSTLY names of collections of small things, possible to count but normally not counted (peas, noodles)

Type 14

Pseudo-countables – names of heterogeneous classes of substances and choppable things (vegetables, narcotics, cosmetics)

2. Conversion, metonymy and X-phemism

Polysemy is a common way in which metonymic concepts manifest themselves in language (see Lakoff 1987 and Taylor 1995). Panther & Radden [1999: 27]

2.1. Part-for-whole metonymy in unVables

2.1.1. Metonyms and expressive function

23Adj>N conversion is the syntactic functional theory explaining the use of a property-denoting adjective as a categorizing label to refer to an entity. In other words conversion is closely related to part-for-whole metonymy, also called synecdoche, which is defined by Seto [1999: 92] as “a conceptual transfer phenomenon based on the semantic inclusion between a more comprehensive and a less comprehensive category.” As metonymy is a conceptualizing device based on contiguity (Tournier 2007, Blank 1999, Bonhomme 2006), one might propose that metonymy is the conceptual counterpart to the syntactic conversion process.

Metonymy as a linguistic device is the transfer of a word to another concept on the basis of conceptual contiguity between a donator and a target concept. Any spontaneous metonymy can be adopted by the speech community and thus become lexicalized. [Blank 1999: 184]

24Much literature has come about in recent years to pluck metonymy and metaphor out of the shadows of stylistics and poetry, pulling them firmly into the limelight of conventional speech. Cognitive linguistics has provided new tools for the study of metonymy, in particular by using the frame model and the spatial metaphor theory developed in Lakoff [1993].

By recurring to frames, we can easily understand metonymic phenomena because frames — and this is a point I would like to stress — are non-linguistic, conceptual wholes. When acknowledging the latter fact, we do not have to overproliferate linguistic-semantic descriptions only for the sake of metonymies. Contiguity is the relation that exists between elements of a frame or between the frame as a whole and its elements. [Koch 1999: 146]

25One of the benefits of the frame model as proposed in Bonhomme [2006] is that this conceptual framework provides for both static and dynamic mental representations of events and participants. This suggests the conceptual contiguity relation is established within a given space and time context, giving heightened relevance to the metonymic expression.

All conceptual relations relevant to metonymy are either co-present or successive in time. These two very fundamental aspects in human conceptualization constitute meta-frames which contain typical conventionalized contiguity schemas. [Blank 1999: 184]

26One can argue that the use of unVables draws upon the frame events constructed by the context, and gives the expression added salience and expressive function. Using the term unavailables in [1] to denote the players unavailable for the game, selects and focuses on the situational and informational relevance of the denotatum rather than the conventional categorizing identity. The heightened relevance of the metonymic use of adjectives as nouns is echoed in Wierzbicka’s [1988: 474] statement that “nouns derived from names of other predicates (adjectives or verbs) tend to develop an expressive component”. This expressive component means that the locution is loaded with connotations in the sense given by Allan [2006: 47]

The connotations of a word or longer expression are semantic effects that arise from the encyclopedic knowledge about it denotation and also from experiences, beliefs, and prejudices about the contexts in which the expression is typically used. [Allan 2006: 47]

27Therefore, the locution is likely to be received with heightened emotional response. The inference is that A>N conversions are in fact highly compatible with X-phemism polarity, which seems to be confirmed in the 13 unVables in the corpus.

Euphemism is a socialized re-evaluating, mitigating speech act in the face of a risky referent. As observed by Pauwels [1999] metonymy is in perfect keeping with euphemism. » [L’euphémisme est un acte de parole réévaluatif, détensif et socialisé face à un référent à risque.... comme l’a observé Pauwels (1999), la métonymie convient parfaitement au processus de l’euphémisme.] [Bonhomme 2006: 160]

2.1.2. X-phemism polarity

28As argued by Pauwels [1999: 272], metonyms have the potential to be either euphemistic or dysphemistic:

Metonymy often seems to function as a kind of ‘avoidance strategy’ for reasons of euphemism perhaps. Conversely, it can also function as a ‘focusing strategy,’ which, in extreme cases, can result in dysphemism.

29This raises the question of the contrast between euphemism, dysphemism and orthophemism (the ‘neutral’ alternative expression). In the words of Allan and Burridge [2006: 31]: “A dysphemism is a word or phrase with connotations that are offensive either about the denotatum and/ or to people addressed or overhearing the utterance.” This definition compared with that of euphemism seems to point to a clearcut distinction between the two. If unmentionables is a definite euphemism for underwear, then Y-fronts or knickers would tend to fall on the dysphemistic side of the neutral expression underwear, being more “graphic” in the conceptualization of the denotatum. Still, without context, lexical expressions can of course fall on either side of the spectrum.

2.2. Ambiguity of censuring in unVables

2.2.1. -able and modalized expression: the role of V semantics

30The meaning of unVable derivatives rests upon the notion of modality (cannot/should not). As mentioned earlier (see 1.2.3.), -able lends itself to modalized interpretation: unVables occasionally relate to the capacity/ability of the denotatum, but more often than not to censure and proscription. The table under 2.3.1 describing the polysemy of unVables shows the ambiguity inherent to the modal: either -able is indicative of inherent inability, or of a proscription or censuring. This is confirmed by the OED entries for the adjectives: the adjective unspeakable can mean either:

a) “Incapable of being expressed in words; inexpressible, indescribable, ineffable”.
b)
spec. Indescribably or inexpressibly bad or objectionable”.
c)
“Incapable of being spoken or uttered; that may not be spoken”.
d) “
U.S. Unwilling or unable to speak”.

31Similarly, the meaning of unutterable can be:

a) “transcending utterance, inexpressible, ineffable”
b) “that may not be uttered or spoken”
c) “incapable of being can uttered, unpronounceable”

32As far as connotations are concerned, the negative or positive polarity of unVable metonyms depends largely upon the FRAME event which is partaken in. In other words, the meaning of the verb at the heart of unVable is central to its expressive effect. This is evidenced by the difference between for instance undesirable (a group of things or people considered unwanted) as opposed as unclassifiables (that which cannot be classified): calling something undesirable amounts to attributing negative properties to the denotatum, whereas designating something as unclassifable does not have the same extralinguistic consequences. To further illustrate, the property unbreakable is good thing when it pertains to glasswear for instance, whereas it is negatively-infused if describing a spy from whom information must be retrieved.

33Amongst the 13 attested unVables retrieved from BNC, 3 of them – unclassifiables, unobservables and undecidables - fall under the orthophemism category. In each occurrence, the label represents the most objective way of referring to a collection of heterogeneous entities.

  • 14 To these we might add unhintables cited by Allan and Burridge [2006: 239].

34On the other hand, a semantic group (unspeakables, unmentionables, unprintables, unwhisperables, unthinkables) stands out, metalinguistically referring to the act of self-censuring one’s speech. Although as Allan and Burridge [2006: 13] point out “People constantly censor the language they use (we differentiate this from the institutionalized imposition of censorship)”, in this case, the censuring is deliberate and explicitly underlined. Interestingly, other unVable adjectives listed in the corpus (figure 2) are not attested as nouns, yet would be compatible such as undescribable, unlistenable, unobjectionable, unpronounceable, unreadable, unrepeatable14. Why do some of these unVables appear in the dictionary whereas others don’t? The answer to this question probably lies in extralinguistic motivation and diachronic change, not to mention the playfulness factor as evidenced by derivational creations such as dontmentionums or untalkaboutables.

The coat was sky-blue; the vest white as a milk-strainer; while the oh-don’t-mention-ums, in the fashion of the day, were so amazingly skin-tight, that any sudden accession to the growth of his limbs, would have caused a rending, as of the bark from a hide-bound tree! [Rev. Baynard 1852]

35As homage to its high productivity, the unVable model does in fact extend to prepositional verbs, as in the currently ubiquitous adjective unputdownable. This 1947 formation receives no less than 6 hits on BYU-BNC. Surprisingly, many similar formations such as unwipeupable (1864), untalkaboutable (1862), unrelyuponable (1840) undowithoutable (1844) actually originate from the 19th century. As has been noted by Mickael Quinion, there is today a renewed trend for formation of unVable such unwearoutable (1968) and unswitchoffable (1974), although there is little evidence of their use as nouns so far.

2.2.3. Diachronic perspective on unVables

36As described in Allan and Burridge [2006: 27], the focus of taboo changes over time, and with it the productivity of morphological processes motivated by euphemism:

A taboo is a proscription of behaviour for a specifiable community of people, for a specified context, at a given place and time.

37UnVables first made their appearance in the Victorian period as an answer to the sociocultural landscape of the time, just as compound adjectives like vertically-challenged appeared during the 1990s as an answer to the politically correct era. The original unVables created during that time refer mainly to breeches or trousers, but Over time, the meaning of the unVables metonyms has evolved to denote other kinds of taboo areas, since women wearing trousers quickly became commonplace. Today, vertically-challenged brings to mind connotations that are no longer euphemistic but rather sarcastic, jocular or second degree. It would seem that unVables are now frequently used as dysphemistic euphemisms, i.e. “expressions at odds with the intentions that lurk behind them. More formally, the locution (the form of words) is at variance with the reference and illocutionary point of utterance (i.e. what the speaker is doing in making the utterance).” Allan and Burridge [2006: 39].

38The change in connotations of an expression like unmentionables (and its synonyms inexpressibles, unhintables, unspeakables, unwhisperables) can be accounted for by a shift in taboos: today, sexual taboos and reference to underwear is not subject to such censure as it was 30 years ago. Tournier [2007: 291] points out that in recent times social euphemisms have become more prominent than sexual euphemisms. The use of a euphemism for a denotatum that no longer requires mitigation becomes at odds with the expected social practices, making them tongue-in-cheek. Euphemisms used outside a taboo context actually draw attention to themselves. The corpus occurrences of unVables tend to exhibit such paradoxical connotations: calling the next door neighbours unspeakables in [10a] or referring to McEnroe’s unprintables in [8] serves to refer back to the implicit proscription to not mention names or swearwords, hence saying out loud what should not be said.

Conclusion

39This case study into unVables shows that there is evidence indicating the morphological formation of the expression is directly related to its expressive potential in discourse. To be more specific, unVables are carriers of mood, i.e. the expressions signal “what the speaker is doing with the proposition”, or what the speaker’s intention is (Bybee [1985: 168]). The morphological markers of mood are threefold, indicating that unVables encode 3 levels of modalization: firstly there is the combination of the negative prefix -un with the modal suffix -able. Secondly, there is the substantivization of the deverbal adjective relying on metonymic associations. As noted in recent research, metonymy is not just a rhetorical trope, it is at heart a disourse-oriented phenomenon expressing an attitude on the part of the speaker. This attitude, as explained in Bonhomme [2006: 160] can in fact be “euphemistic, jocular or polemic”. It follows that unVables are likely carriers of Xphemism in discourse, although where they fall on the Xphemism scale depends on the pragmatic context of their occurrence. In any case unVables are inherently marked expressions: they carry modalized content and occur in frames which serve to pin down the otherwise polysemic nature of the expression.

  • 15 Many thanks to Kate Burridge for her helpful suggestions and commentary.

40Allan [2006: 147] defines both euphemism and dysphemism as “alternative effects of connotation”, thus placing them on a polarized X-phemism scale ranging from positive to negative connotation. Pragmatically, euphemism has the power to “motivate (a) the choice between near synonyms and (b) the development of new expressions, so as to avoid injury, or to indicate in-group solidarity, politeness, deference, “political correctness”, insult or aggression.” Both effects seem largely contrastive, and yet, both values can co-occur in an expression. Unmentionables used today has an extended meaning compared to its original sense of underclothes. Its polysemy can be accounted for by the underlying metonymy and intentional semantic underspecification. This can be interpreted in two opposing ways – either the underspecification is borne out of a euphemistic desire to mitigate, or the unVables expression is to be taken as a deontic modal, referring metalinguistically to the taboo surrounding the denotatum, thus laying focus on the self-censure at the heart of taboos. Wherever they refer metalinguistically to self-censure, one might be tempted to call them dysphemistic euphemisms, although they have little in common with the illustrations provided in Allan and Burridge [2006] for such expressions (the affectionate use of swearwords). Instead, these expressions call to mind other dysphemistic devices, such as flippant colloquialisms for death like cark it, peg out, kick the bucket15. If one accepts that dysphemism occurs when the intention of the speaker is at odds with the choice of wording, then the use of unVables is a case in point. As the intention of the speaker in using classic Victorian unVables draws attention to the (perceived) taboo rather than concealing or circumventing it, unVables paradoxically allow the “speaker’s dysphemistic intention (to) be achieved euphemistically”, in the words of Allan and Burridge [2006: 39].

Some artful euphemisms (...) are meant to be as revealing – and in their own way as provoking – as diaphanous lingerie. As bawdy authors like Shakespeare and political satirists like Swift and Orwell well know, titillation of the audience is the best way to draw attention to their message. [Allan 2012: 34]

41This image perfectly underlines the ambivalent nature of unVables: their use simultaneously signals a desire to minimize the taboo topic while emphasizing the proscription, which amounts to placing the taboo under a magnifying glass. Consequently, the pragmatic effect achieved in discourse can often be one of provocation or satire. Such euphemisms which draw attention to themselves, or “provocative euphemisms” according to Burridge [2005: 39], do not intend to camouflage but rather to tease, “concealing just enough to become prurient and appealing.” Still, these somewhat schizophrenic euphemisms have come full circle. They themselves obey the ultimate motivation behind taboos – humankind’s fear of “losing control of their destinies”, as noted by Allan and Burridge [2006: 247].

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Notes

1 In Allan and Burridge [2006] ‘X-phemism’ is used to refer to the combined set of alternative expressions which range from euphemism to dysphemism through orthophemism.

2 Orthophemism (Greek ortho-’proper, straight, normal’, cf. orthodox) is a term we have coined in order to account for direct or neutral expressions that are not sweet-sounding, evasive or overly polite (euphemistic), nor harsh, blunt or offensive (dysphemistic).” [Allan and Burridge 2006: 29].

3 Many totally converted adjectives are practically pluralia tantum.” Poutsma [1929: 368]. By this, Poutsma means that most adjectives that are considered to be fully converted carry a plural -s inflection and are not used in the singular with the same meaning.

4 The attested converted adjectives appear in bold characters.

5 In Bybee [1985: 81] “One of the most persistent undefinables in morphology is the distinction between derivational and inflectional morphology.”

6 Lexicalized in OED and referenced in Probert Encyclopeadia; British slang for underwear.

7 Lexicalized in OED as a noun, in the sense of “unmentionables” (slang) and in Routledge Dictionary of Historical Slang: synonym for unmentionables.

8 Many thanks to Kate Burridge for pointing out that saddleable is now attested, and can be found in patent claims (see http://www.patentstorm.us/patents/4794771/claims.html).

9 Interestingly, Tournier [2007: 287] refers to the sometimes deontological function of euphemism, to which I will return after a preliminary description of the semantics of the unVables in the corpus.

10 From Will Self, How the dead live. In Smith [2005] corpus.

11 From Marian Keyes, Last Chance Saloon, 1999. In Smith [2005] corpus.

12 From Stephen Fry, The Hippopotamus 1995. Corpus Smith [2005].

13 Every grammatical construction encodes a certain meaning, which can be revealed and rigorously stated, so that the meanings of different constructions can be compared in a precise and illuminating fashion, both within one language and across language boundaries.” Wierzbicka [1988: 3]

14 To these we might add unhintables cited by Allan and Burridge [2006: 239].

15 Many thanks to Kate Burridge for her helpful suggestions and commentary.

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References

Electronic reference

Chris Smith, « Double whammy! The dysphemistic euphemism implied in unVables such as unmentionables, unprintables, undesirables », Lexis [Online], 7 | 2012, Online since 25 June 2012, connection on 25 July 2017. URL : http://lexis.revues.org/378 ; DOI : 10.4000/lexis.378

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About the author

Chris Smith

MCF à l’Université de Caen, membre du CRISCO, EA 4255
unclbungaria@yahoo.com

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