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10 April 2004 @ 14:39
Bob and Pat and Roman and Linwood  

Linwood Barclay, a humour columnist for the Toronto Star, surprised me this morning by devoting an entire column to a question that receives four sentences in Roman Jakobson's "Linguistics and Poetics." Here's Barclay:

Neetha said, "Why don't we see if Bob and Pat can come for dinner?"


The question was, why is it never Pat and Bob? Why, when we refer to them, does Bob's name always come first?

We don't think any less of Pat. It's not that she deserves second billing. Bob would be the first to admit his wife possesses greater star qualities than he does. He'd be happy to have his name follow hers.

And here is Jakobson:

"Why do you always say Joan and Margery, yet never Margery and Joan? Do you prefer Joan to her twin sister?" "Not at all, it just sounds smoother." In a sequence of two coordinate names, as far as no rank problems interfere, the precedence of the shorter name suits the speaker, unaccountably for him, as a well-ordered shape of the message.

Jakobson's point, of course, is the pervasiveness of the poetic function (which focuses on the form of the linguistic expression itself) even in non-literary utterances. In the example he gives, I'm not sure that the rule is really "put the shorter one first" (and I don't think Jakobson thought it was that simple, either), but the preferred order does indeed seem to be based on prosody: saying Márgery and Jóan places three unstressed syllables in a row (gery and), while Jóan and Márgery comes closer to the ideal alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables.

But prosody obviously cannot account for Barclay's preference for Bob and Pat over Pat and Bob, and the "shorter-first" rule makes the wrong prediction for Annie and Mike, another pair of Barclay's friends. Barclay reports that "the prevailing theory" among himself, Neetha, Bob, and Pat "is that the person you met first gets the top billing." This would certainly account for why I have absolutely no intuitions about Pat and Bob or Annie and Mike, since I haven't met any of them.

By the way, I know that Geoff Pullum has called off the hunt for insanely long (but grammatical) coordinate structures, but Barclay's column does have a lovely sequence of disjoined conjunctions (broken up by full stops, but still), which I can't resist quoting:

It's like trying to say Costello and Abbott, or Hardy and Laurel, or Cher and Sonny, or Clark and Lewis. Or Lewis and Martin. Or Rossi and Martini. Or Julio and Ernest Gallo. Or Jerry and Ben. Or Hyde and Jekyll. Or Jeckle and Heckle. Or Bullwinkle and Rocky. Or Dale and Chip. Or Wagnalls and Funk. Or Pascoe and Dalziel. Or The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy. Or Robbins and Baskin. Or Robin and Batman. Or Butthead and Beavis. Or Beany and Cecil. Or Ernie and Bert. Or Clyde and Bonnie. Or Shuster and Wayne. Or mash and bangers. Or Mindy and Mork. Or Fitch and Abercrombie. Or Spencer and Marks. Or Eve and Adam. Or White and Strunk. Or Pokey and Gumby. Or Brinkley and Huntley. Or Garfunkel and Simon. Or Cleopatra and Antony. Or Ginger and Fred.

And what about phloem and xylem? That's goes against everything I learned in public school.

These, of course, are mostly fixed phrases—no matter whom you like better, or whom you met first, if you go to the bookstore looking for White & Strunk or to the record store looking for Garfunkel & Simon, you will be disappointed. (Actually, if you go looking for Strunk & White these days, you are likely to find Strunk, White & Angell instead, which may or may not disappoint you, depending on how you feel about White's stepson. In my view, his baseball writing in the New Yorker is often lyrical to the point of being incomprehensible. But maybe that's just because I don't know enough about baseball (cf. Chambers 1988).)

But there's still a potentially interesting question to be asked about why these fixed phrases got fixed in the order in which we know and love them today. The "shorter-first" rule works for several (Abbott and Costello, Ben and Jerry, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Funk and Wagnalls, Bert and Ernie, Wayne and Shuster, Mork and Mindy, Marks and Spencer, Simon and Garfunkel, Antony and Cleopatra, and Fred and Ginger), but there are enough exceptions (Sonny and Cher, Lewis and Clark, Martini and Rossi, Jekyll and Hyde, Bonnie and Clyde, bangers and mash, Abercrombie and Fitch, and Adam and Eve) to make the tendency look rather weak, and of course something else needs to be said about the many cases in which the two conjuncts are of equal (prosodic) weight.

Nuværende humør: thoughtfulthoughtful
Nuværende musik: Vivaldi, "La Tempesta di Mare" (RV 433)
w1ldc47w1ldc47 on 10. April, 2004 14:19 (UTC)
You and Barclay got it wrong
It's Ernie and Bert. Bert and Ernie just sounds wrong. So there.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 10. April, 2004 14:45 (UTC)
Did not!

Oh, yeah? Well, Linwood and Roman and I outvote you:

So there. (Of course, by now I'm so thoroughly scanted out that I'll accept anything up to and including "Bernie inert" (1 ghit).)

Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 10. April, 2004 15:01 (UTC)
Re: Did not!

Further research reveals that this is indeed a matter of some controversy over at Muppet Central.

Tishiewahooweena on 10. April, 2004 18:19 (UTC)
Not to take this from linguistics to feminism, but in my experience, when it comes to het couples or opposite sex pairings, the man's name almost always comes first. I was socialized that way and make a point now of not doing it, but it is really ingrained.
Tishiewahooweena on 10. April, 2004 18:21 (UTC)
I've heard Bert & Ernie most, but I always loved Ernie, so I think he should go first.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 10. April, 2004 19:02 (UTC)

Feminist drift is always welcome in this blog! Interestingly, Barclay brings up the Annie and Mike example specifically to demonstrate that the principle behind Bob and Pat isn't "man first."

With most of the opposite-sex pairs I can think of offhand, I think my choice of order is based on Barclay's principle—the one I've known longer (or know better) comes first.

Tishiewahooweena on 10. April, 2004 19:53 (UTC)
Very true. I was primarily thinking of introductions and how I hear others referring to het couples (e.g., "We just met the nicest folks while camping! Barry and Mary Smith!). But for our close friends, whom I call Beth and Dain on my LJ, but who are really B(2 syllables) and D(3 syllables), I say it that way because Beth is my best friend. Larz says it the opposite way. :) I also refer Beth's house, while he calls it Dain's house.
(Anonym) on 12. April, 2004 09:24 (UTC)
If my memory serves me right, there's a bit in a semantics book, circa the late seventies (I think it might be Lyons 1977 "Semantics") which looks at paired antonyms like "day and night", and proposes that the unmarked member is mentioned first. He uses examples like "man and woman"; "husband and wife" to illustrate the point (with the concommitant assumption that it's the masculine that's unmarked). Of course that doesn't account for "black and white", assuming that "white" is unmarked in the binary imagination of unreconstructed structuralists. (Can you tell the analysis annoyed me?)

Or "Night and Day".

Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 12. April, 2004 18:31 (UTC)

Fruzzle! Great to see you here!

I don't have Lyons, but that markedness stuff sounds familiar, and it would fit in pretty well with the generalization Barclay came up with for names—the person you know better is the one who's 'unmarked' from your point of view. Good point about day and night / night and day, though.

So which one is unmarked in black and blue?

(Anonym) on 13. April, 2004 19:52 (UTC)
Black, because it's higher in Berlin & Kay's hierarchy of colour terms?

Black and red or red and black?
Blue and pink or pink and blue?
Blue and green or green and blue?

"Red, white and blue" is clearly an exception. But it does have three terms, though.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 14. April, 2004 11:52 (UTC)
  • Red on black, I think, if we're talking about trollish newspapers.
  • I'd say pink and blue, pace Berlin & Kay.
  • Grue!

...and then there's bleu, blanc, et rouge, which is in order of appearance.

acw on 31. August, 2004 07:26 (UTC)
Wait a minute
Isn't it "Beany and Cecil"? Barclay presents this in a long list of presumably incorrect orderings, but I can't say anything but "Beany and Cecil"; "Cecil and Beany" sounds completely wrong. Can anybody back me up? (Yes, I know I'm months behind the times, but I just found this blog.)