The Thing I Wonder About

by Will on September 8, 2010

There’s an issue in English usage that I wish I could get a better grip on. I wish I could encourage linguistics researchers or historians to take it up, and tell me the scoop.

Take Eric Burden’s song “Warm San Franciscan Night” — a song in serious contention for the “most embarrassing lyric” award. Now, you hear it, and every time he says “San Franciscan” it sounds wrong. You want him instead to say “warm San Francisco Night.” The adjectival form “San Franciscan” exists, but we’d prefer just to use the straight noun “San Francisco” and make it function like an adjective that can modify “night”. What kind of a night is it? Why, a San Francisco night.

This same issue comes up in politics, in that the guys on right-wing radio, and their listeners, take great pleasure in saying “the Democrat party.” Many Democrats take this as a slur, insisting on the full adjectival form, “Democratic.” Rather a silly disagreement. But notice that the difference in usage here is exactly the same thing that’s going on with “San Francisco night” vs. “San Franciscan night”; do we alter the noun to make a distinct adjective, or do we just treat the unaltered noun as an adjective?

Back in the day, I think, English-speakers habitually used adjectival forms of nouns when the noun had to go in an adjective slot. Doing otherwise would sounded “unschooled” to speakers of yore. But now sometimes we do go with the adjectival form, and sometimes we just use the straight noun. One can talk of a “[James] Joycian writing style,” but one can also talk of “Betty Davis eyes.” Why not a “James Joyce writing style” and “[Betty] Davisian eyes”? I want to know:

*Was there a historical change that brought about this linguistic change? What are the earliest examples of the noun-cum-adjective phenomenon?

*Are there rules that predict which usage people will use in different cases? Are there broad patterns that can be discerned?

*Is this trend gaining steam? (My sense is Yes, usage is headed in the direction of allowing nouns to be used not only as adjectives, across the board, but also as verbs).

This has been bugging me for a few years, and I’ve made efforts to do my own research, using both the Oxford English Dictionary and JSTOR’s catalog. I didn’t get anywhere.

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