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13 April 2008 @ 18:14

Involuntarily I glanced seaward — and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock.

—Nick Caraway

Ian Parker, writing about George Clooney in the April 14 issue of The New Yorker, startled me by saying that when a star enables a film to be green-lit, he is a god feigning mortality for the duration of the shoot.

Setting aside any theological questions that might suggest themselves, the image this assertion called to mind was something like this:

[a still from a green-lit movie starring George Clooney]

In my grammar, anyway, if a film is green-lit, then someone was shining an actual green light on the set, whereas if it has been given the metaphorical green light, the go-ahead, it has been green-lighted.

[the proverbial green light]

This is part of a more general pattern in English word structure that arises from the interaction of a couple of phenomena:

  1. It's very easy, in English, to coin a new word simply by converting an existing word from one part of speech to another. (This is the process famously exemplified and alluded to by the Calvinist dictum "Verbing weirds language," except of course that it's not just verbing—you can noun things, too, as in the case of turning the phrasal verb go ahead into the noun go-ahead.)
  2. New words use the regular inflectional affixes to mark things like tense and number, unless they are directly and transparently derived from irregular words.

So, if you take a noun and verb it, it becomes a regular verb, even if it looks like an already existing irregular verb:

  • If a baseball player hits a ball that is caught on the fly by a member of the opposing team, then the batter has flied out, not flown out.
  • A politician who has been playing to the grandstand is said to have grandstanded, not to have grandstood.
  • A plane that went into a dive either dived or dove, but if it went into a nosedive, then it nosedived; one wouldn't say that it nosedove.

Similarly, when a compound noun contains an irregular noun, the compound as a whole will not be irregular unless that noun is the head of the compound:

[Toronto Maple Leafs]
  • A wisdom tooth is a kind of tooth, so the plural is wisdom teeth, but a sabretooth isn't, so the plural of that is sabretooths.
  • If you have more than one maple leaf of the sort that grow on maple trees, then you have some maple leaves, but if you have more than one Maple Leaf of the sort that haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1967, then you have some Maple Leafs.

So if you take the compound noun green light and convert it into the verb green-light, then it will have the structure shown below, and the fact that the verb light has an irregular past tense will be quite irrelevant to how you form the past tense of green-light.

[V [N [A green] [N light]]]

What I wonder, though, is whether Ian Parker's grammar actually works differently from this, or whether the appearance of green-lit in the article was some kind of hypercorrection. I'm reminded of the story of the zookeeper who couldn't decide whether to order "two mongooses" or "two mongeese"—neither looked right—and thus ended up asking for "one mongoose, and, while you're at it, another one." But The New Yorker, rather uncharacteristically, appears to have come down on the side of mongeese.

harkalark: thinkharkalark on 13. April, 2008 22:27 (UTC)
I've heard "greenlit" other places, too. This was a cool analysis. (And might I say that you put the "anal" into "analysis?" I might.)
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 15. April, 2008 16:03 (UTC)

I should mention that the analysis is by no means original; the examples I gave are more or less classics in the literature on morphological structure, irregular infections, compounding, and conversion. (One relatively short and recent paper with lots of similar examples is Steven Pinker and Michael Ullman's article called "The past and future of the past tense," in Trends in Cognitive Sciences 6.11.)

I once took a course on linguistic analysis and argumentation, which showed up in the compact version of the timetable as ANAL AND ARG.

Merle: lambdamerle_ on 14. April, 2008 00:39 (UTC)
Very interesting! I would have to think that it would be "two mongeese", then, since I do not believe "mongoose" is "mon" + "goose". (Safari's spellchecker disagrees with me, but I disagree with many spellcheckers)
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 15. April, 2008 15:54 (UTC)
Jamaican for 'gander'
I would have to think that it would be "two mongeese", then, since I do not believe "mongoose" is "mon" + "goose".

I'm not sure I follow this. Here's how I would expect things to work:

  • If mongoose is completely unrelated to goose:
    • the plural would probably be mongooses,
    • or it might have the same irregular plural as goose by historical accident.
  • If mongoose were mon+goose:
    • then if goose were the head of the compound (≈if a mongoose were a kind of goose), the plural would be mongeese,
    • but if the structure and meaning of mongoose were like sabretooth or pickpocket, then the plural would be mongooses.
  • And in either case, if you take the noun mongoose and turn it into a verb, it will be regular ("Rikki really mongoosed the heck out of Nag").
  • And if you turn the (hypothetical) denominal verb mongoose back into a noun (meaning something like 'an act of mongoosing'), then the plural of the dedenominalverbal noun mongoose will have to be mongooses, no matter what the plural of the original noun mongoose is.
Merle: lambdamerle_ on 16. April, 2008 16:17 (UTC)
Re: Jamaican for 'gander'
Good points. For some strange reason I was thinking -oose-eese was one of those standard non-standard pluralizations, but it certainly fails for moose (comedian jokes aside) and for noose.
Prof. Bleen6_bleen_7 on 14. April, 2008 00:50 (UTC)
I see how the Toronto Maple Leafs fit into the rule, but what about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? Certainly the plural of red dwarf is red dwarfs, but the movie title almost has to reflect a change in the convention.
Oh, Snap!kutsuwamushi on 14. April, 2008 01:51 (UTC)
Do you mean that you would expect Snow White and the Seven Dwarves?

"Dwarfs" is a normal plural of "dwarf," though. It's also older than "dwarves", IIRC.
Prof. Bleen6_bleen_7 on 14. April, 2008 04:01 (UTC)
Yes, I was wondering whether "dwarfs" was the standard plural 60 years ago.
Q. Pheevr: Sir Loodabert Commaq_pheevr on 15. April, 2008 15:35 (UTC)

The OED's examples suggest that both plurals have been kicking around for quite a while. If we go back much earlier than these, then we start finding all sorts of different forms (durwes, dwerghs, etc.):

A.1.b. One of a supposed race of diminutive beings, who figure in Teutonic and esp. Scandinavian mythology and folk-lore; often identified with the elves, and supposed to be endowed with special skill in working metals, etc.

  • 1770 Bp. Percy tr. Mallet's North. Antiq. v. (1847) 98 They made of his skull the vault of heaven, which is supported by four dwarfs, named North, South, East, and West.

  • 1818 W. Taylor in Monthly Mag. XLVI. 26 The history of Laurin, king of the dwarves.

  • 1834 Lytton Pilgrims of Rhine xxvi, The aged King of the Dwarfs that preside over the dull realms of lead.

  • 1846 J. E. Taylor Fairy Ring Notes 363 The notion that the wicked elves or dwarfs had the power to steal children before their baptism is found also..in Iceland.

I think it may have been J.R.R. Tolkien (in his capacity as a fantasist, rather than as a contributor to the OED) who was largely responsible for the current preference for dwarves.

tungol: linguisticstungol on 15. April, 2008 01:44 (UTC)
I have observed (either from myself or from one of my siblings, I forget at the moment) highlitten, which goes an extra step of weirdness beyond green-lit, since we don't have *litten (though, I have heard it from my siblings, so perhaps that is at work).
Q. Pheevr: Crunchly types a Qq_pheevr on 15. April, 2008 15:20 (UTC)

That's cool. If the past participle is highlitten, I wonder whether the simple past tense would be highlit (following light/lit and bite/bit/bitten) or highlote (following write/wrote/written)?

I think there are circumstances in which I would use highlitten, but they're the same ones in which the plural of mongoose would be polygoose.

tungoltungol on 16. April, 2008 02:40 (UTC)
I strongly suspect that it would be highlit, but I don't think I have any actual observations.
theridger on 16. April, 2008 16:25 (UTC)
Lots of people use "greenlit" though I agree that greenlighted would be correct. Have you read Pinker's "Words and Rules"? I know he talks about the unexpectedly irregular, but I don't have my copy here.
theridger on 16. April, 2008 16:27 (UTC)
For instance, Maple Leafs but Timberwolves (not Timberwolfs).
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 17. April, 2008 04:08 (UTC)

That's an interesting contrast. I think that the relevant difference is between metonymy and metaphor—the maple leaf is merely the emblem worn by Toronto's NHL team, whereas the members of Minneapolis's NBA team are supposed to resemble timberwolves in some way (only taller, and with opposable thumbs). So a Minnesota Timberwolf is metaphorically a wolf, and patterns morphologically like beewolf, but a Toronto Maple Leaf is just a guy with a maple leaf on his chest, and patterns morphologically like sabretooth. (Pinker & Ullman mention beewolves and Seawolfs as contrasting examples, although The Google Corpus indicates that lots of people use Seawolves for the aircraft.)

Henrytahnan on 16. April, 2008 20:42 (UTC)
"Greenlighted" is what I'd expect as well, though "green-lit" doesn't jar me as much as, I suppose, it does you.

The regularization that we found especially troublesome when I was an undergrad, working at the computer help desk and watching people put together resumes, was "troubleshoot". To list "Troubleshot computer problems" as a previous experience sounded weird, but "Troubleshooted computer problems" sounded much worse. (In the end, people settled on "Did troubleshooting" as the past tense, or perhaps "Helped troubleshoot".)
Q. Pheevr: Crunchly types a Qq_pheevr on 17. April, 2008 04:20 (UTC)

I kind of like shot trouble.

Probably I wouldn't have been as startled by green-lit if it hadn't been in, of all places, The New Yorker. And there is, after all, the word twilit to contend with. (Twilighted sounds odd to me, although the OED gives examples of both forms.) But then, "The room was twilit" entails "The room was lit" (albeit dimly), while "The movie was [green-light+PAST PART.]" does not entail "The movie was lit" (although who would green-light a movie where you couldn't see anything?).