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26 Juni 2008 @ 16:07
We hold these buttocks to be inalienable  

Fev, at Headsup: The blog (syndicated here on LiveJournal as headsuptheblog) recently remarked on this peculiar headline:1

FBI: Man throws ice, grabs buttocks on plane
A Charlotte-bound flight had to make a quick landing Tuesday after authorities said a man wouldn't cooperate with the flight crew, throwing ice at passengers, refusing to fasten his seatbelt and grabbing a flight attendant.2

Fev explains the infelicity of the headline as follows: "This is a fault of parallelism, or coordination. 'Ice' is a noun, and 'buttocks' is a noun, but they aren't the same kind of noun."

The second of these statements is exactly right, but I don't entirely agree with the first. Coordination is not the problem here—the constituents being coordinated are two verb phrases, and that's fine. The problem is with the internal structure of the second verb phrase. It's true that what's wrong with the second verb phrase is that the direct object is a bare noun that shouldn't be a bare noun, and it's true that the first verb phrase also contains a bare noun as a direct object, but this parallel has nothing to do with whether it's possible to coordinate the two verb phrases. It would be fine to say "Man throws ice, grabs flight attendant's buttocks," with a bare noun in the first verb phrase and a possessed noun in the second.

What's interesting here is that we're dealing with headlinese, which is generally much more tolerant of bare nouns than other varieties of English. In ordinary English, you can have bare mass nouns and bare plural nouns, with an existential interpretation, but not bare singular count nouns; in headlinese, though, bare singulars are usually okay: "Man throws ice on plane" is perfectly good headlinese, but if you're not writing a headline, it would have to be "A man threw ice on a plane." (Tense works differently in headlinese, too, as you may have noticed.)

The crucial difference between ice and buttocks (well, the one that's crucial for people trying to write headlines, as opposed to the ones that are crucial for people trying to make cocktails) is that buttocks, like other body parts, are inalienably possessed. If I give you my ice, then it's not my ice anymore; it's your ice. But if I somehow detach my buttocks and give them to you, then even though you may be their legal owner, they're still my buttocks, in some profoundly inalterable sense. They're also yours, in the alienable sense; if you then sell them to some third party, they cease to be yours, but they will never cease to be mine. (Inalienable possession is not just for body parts, either—the same thing applies to kinship terms. If my sister sells me to you, I may be your slave, but I'm still her brother.)

In ordinary English, it would sound odd to say, "A man grabbed buttocks on a plane." The bare plural is not ungrammatical, but the existential interpretation it receives (≈ 'There were some buttocks, and a man grabbed them') is pragmatically weird. Were the buttocks just sitting there all by themselves, or were they still attached to their original owner(s)? At best, I might be able to use that sentence to describe a situation in which a man on a plane went around grabbing at various people's buttocks, perhaps indiscriminately; I don't think I could ever use it to report that a man had grabbed exactly one person's buttocks.

In headlinese, though, a bare inalienable noun is typically interpreted not as an existential, but as belonging to someone mentioned in the headline itself. "Man throws ice at daughter" would be taken to mean that a man threw some ice at his own daughter—if the target of the ice were someone else's daughter, the headline would read "Man throws ice at girl" or "Man throws ice at woman" (or, if she's the daughter of some particularly notable person X, "Man throws ice at X's daughter"). So the most salient interpretation of "Man grabs buttocks" is that he grabbed his own buttocks. (Hence The Ridger, FCD, remarks, "I was envisioning a rather aggressive mooning.") There is a considerable differnce between "Man grabs buttocks on plane" and "Man grabs flight attendant's buttocks": the former, while certainly indecorous, would probably not be cause for an abrupt landing, while the latter (absent the flight attendant's approval) is at best harassment and at worst assault.


1. I don't know where it originally appeared.

2. "Authorities said" is presumably trying to be some sort of parenthetical disclaimer here, without much success. The way this sentence is worded makes it sound as if the report preceded the landing.

 
 
 
Vizcacha: Bite my asschillyrodent on 26. Juni, 2008 20:12 (UTC)
I am amused that buttocks is a bare noun.
the_deli: BOTTLE OPENERthedeli on 26. Juni, 2008 20:47 (UTC)
[hi-hat]
Prof. Bleen6_bleen_7 on 26. Juni, 2008 21:03 (UTC)
Perhaps the buttocks belong to the airplane. This leads to some confusion, as the perpetrator was clearly inside the passenger compartment whilst committing the crime. Here, a careful inspection of the wording pays off: the buttocks would be on the plane as well as of the plane. I imagine several sets of glutei maximi embedded in a bulkhead, along with a hand-lettered sign reading "Do Not Grab", somewhat like a modern-day apple tree in the Garden of Eden.
Lexiepolyhymnia on 26. Juni, 2008 22:21 (UTC)
I think a spurious apostrophe sneaked into "Man throw's ice at woman"...
Q. Pheevr: Sir Loodabert Commaq_pheevr on 26. Juni, 2008 22:29 (UTC)

I have no idea how that happened. It's fixed now.

Merle: lambdamerle_ on 27. Juni, 2008 00:32 (UTC)
In some literary genres and subcultures, one could claim that if your sister sells you to me as a slave, then "your buttocks are mine" could be a valid statement: a transferrence (albeit temporary and only while you do not successfully contest) of an inalienable possession.
w1ldc47w1ldc47 on 27. Juni, 2008 11:28 (UTC)
Except that, for all that his buttocks might then be yours, they are still also his (necessary to distinguish them from the buttocks of any other slaves you may possess, not to mention the ones that are part of your own body). His buttocks become yours in the alienable sense, but remain his in the inalienable sense.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 27. Juni, 2008 18:30 (UTC)

Exactly.

(Anonym) on 1. Juli, 2008 16:16 (UTC)
Anna Phor
There's something else as well as inalienability here, though. Consider: "Man throws ice, gropes buttocks on plane." The verb choice makes a difference; typically a groper gropes someone else.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 2. Juli, 2008 20:10 (UTC)
Re: Anna Phor

Good point; it might not be possible to grope one's own buttocks (without a time machine). In "Man throws ice, gropes buttocks on plane," though, the existential reading still seems weird (in a random-dissociated-buttocks sort of way), even though it becomes more salient than the reflexive reading by virtue of the choice of verb. It seems to require more than one pair of buttocks to have been involved.

On the other hand, if you say "Man gropes way, finding stairs unlit" (y'know, in a headlinese translation of The Waste Land), then I get the reflexive reading. Does this mean that one's way is even more inalienable than one's buttocks? (And if so, why is it so easy to lose one's way?)



Edited at 2008-07-03 17:32 (UTC)
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