"Bigfeet"?

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Dana Millbank, "Goodbye, Republican Party. Hello, Bigfoot Party.", WaPo 7/31/2018:

By now, there are few in the political world who have not yeti heard about what’s going on in the 5th Congressional District of Virginia.

The Republican candidate in the race, Denver Riggleman, was discovered to have posted images of “Bigfoot erotica” on Instagram, with the furry fellow’s ample nether regions obscured. The candidate is also co-author of a 2006 book about Bigfoot hunting in which he describes “serious Bigfoot research” and includes an assertion that “Bigfoots like sex, too.”

Shouldn’t that be “Bigfeet”?

Actually, no.

From Steve Pinker's 1999 book Words and Rules:

Some complex words are exceptional in being headless. That is, they don’t get their properties — such as grammatical category or referent — from their rightmost morpheme. The normal right-hand-head rule must be turned off for the word to be interpreted and used properly. As a result, the mechanism that ordinarily retrieves stored information from the word’s root is inactive, and any irregular form stored with the root is trapped in memory, unable to be passed upward to apply to the whole word. The regular rule, acting as the default, steps in to supply the complex word with a past tense form, undeterred by the fact that the sound of the word ordinarily would call for an irregular form.

Here is how the explanation works for one class of regularizations, compounds whose referent has rather than is an example of the referent of the rightmost morpheme. For example, a low-life is not a kind of life, but a kind of person, namely, a person who has or leads a low life. For it to have that meaning, the right-hand head rule, which would ordinarily make low-life mean a kind of life (the semantic information stored in memory with life), must be abrogated. With the usual data pipeline to the memory entry for the head disabled, there is no way for the other information stored with life to be passed upward either, such as the fact that it has an irregular plural form, lives. With the irregular plural unavailable, the regular -s rule steps in, and we get low-lifes.

Similar logic explains regularized forms such as still lifes (a kind of painting, not a kind of life), saber-tooths (a kind of cat, not a kind of tooth), flatfoots (policemen, not feet), bigmouths (not a kind of mouth but a person who has a big mouth), and Walkmans (not a kind of man, but a "personal stereo"). 

Since bigfoot is exactly this type of exocentric compound, the expected plural (according to Pinker) is "bigfoots", not "bigfeet".

(Though I must confess that both forms are Out There. Also plural "bigfoot", perhaps on the model of uninflected plural ethnonyms like "Inuit". And also even "bigfeets"…)

[h/t Richard Sproat]

 



48 Comments »

  1. David William Lightfoot said,

    August 1, 2018 @ 3:36 pm

    and when my family gets together, we are the Lightfoots, for the reasons Richard and Steve give; "lightfeet" only as a joke.

  2. Jim said,

    August 1, 2018 @ 3:51 pm

    Don't let old Odo Proudfoot hear you say that!

  3. DaveK said,

    August 1, 2018 @ 4:29 pm

    So what’s the rule that explains why the hockey team in Toronto is the Maple Leafs but the the in Minnesota is the Timberwolves?

  4. Doug said,

    August 1, 2018 @ 4:46 pm

    "With the irregular plural unavailable, the regular -s rule steps in, and we get low-lifes."

    That didn't stop the science fiction author Julian May from writing "Lowlives" in the word's frequent occurrence in her Pliocene Exile books.

  5. Jeremy said,

    August 1, 2018 @ 5:03 pm

    On a related note: My brother and I were always silly gooses growing up, if I remember right.

  6. Sean Richardson said,

    August 1, 2018 @ 5:36 pm

    How many bigfeetses does it take to explicate their morphemic nonexistence?

  7. Dizzy Fingers said,

    August 1, 2018 @ 5:53 pm

    "So what’s the rule that explains why the hockey team in Toronto is the Maple Leafs but the the in Minnesota is the Timberwolves?"

    Because the Maple Leafs are named the national emblem of Canada. If you called the team "Maple Leaves," they would just sound like an amorphous collection of leaves. Calling them the "Maple Leafs" preserves the idea that each player corresponds to the individual, distinct leaf on the Canadian flag.

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 1, 2018 @ 6:52 pm

    Is "bigmouths" on the list for pronunciation rather than spelling?

    Does Pinker explain why the irregular plural is available to the people who say "lowlives", "bigfeet", etc.?

    Jim: I was going to quote that passage, but your way is probably better.

  9. Rick Rubenstein said,

    August 1, 2018 @ 9:36 pm

    I loved Words and Rules (how many people in the world could write a can't-put-it-down book about irregular verbs??) but wasn't sure how well its central hypotheses had weathered the intervening years.

  10. Viseguy said,

    August 1, 2018 @ 10:51 pm

    Bigfoot sounds better to me — like the plural of moose. Bigfoots is jarring to my ear, and Bigfeet just feels wrong.

    There was a time in the '80s when I insisted (peeved) that the plural of mouse, the computer peripheral, should be mouses. Mice is much more common, according to Google.

  11. Lai Ka Yau said,

    August 1, 2018 @ 11:06 pm

    I found the 'yeti' typo in the beginning slightly amusing given that the discussion is about bigfoot!

    [(myl) My impression was that it's a joke rather than a typo.]

  12. Stephen Hart said,

    August 2, 2018 @ 12:15 am

    Of course, this brings up the issue of Blackfoots vs Blackfeet.

    And, as a native northwesterner (not Native American), I can't imagine anyone here responding in any way other than laughter at "bigfeet."

  13. rosie said,

    August 2, 2018 @ 12:35 am

    @Jeremy But that's a different phenomenon: that of a transferred sense of a noun getting the opportunity to get a regular plural. Hence the debate as to whether they're (computer) mice or mouses.

    Isn't Steve Pinker wrong on a couple of points? He seems to equate "head" with "rightmost morpheme" — but "son-in-law" has a head and it isn't the rightmost morpheme. And what for him prevents certain compounds' rightmost morphemes being heads is what those compounds /mean/ — is that right?

  14. Aaron Toivo said,

    August 2, 2018 @ 1:43 am

    "Low-lifes"? Not a type of life? I disagree on both counts! And thus still obey the rule, if differently than Mr. Pinker does. But there are many times where the ideas of a "life" and a "person" overlap, and in my opinion the word "low-life" is one of them.

  15. maidhc said,

    August 2, 2018 @ 3:55 am

    Consider the Blackfoot or Blackfeet tribe of Native Americans. The name is a translation of the name in their language. (Lots more on Wikipedia.) The plural form has to do with people having two feet. In modern usage both forms are in use; it seems mostly Blackfeet in the US and Blackfoot in Canada.

    It doesn't seem that "Blackfoots" was ever very common. People would say something like "We met a group of Blackfoot".

    Probably because of its derivation this is an exception to the general rules.

    [(myl) The patterns are complicated, but lots of ethnonyms in English have uninflected plurals — see Kevin Tuite, "The Declension of Ethnonyms in English", BLS 1995.]

  16. Ursa Major said,

    August 2, 2018 @ 7:07 am

    @Jim. Bilbo, being to some extent a Mary Sue of a somewhat conservative philologist, insists on following his rules despite being corrected by the person he's referring to. Has anyone asked the Bigfxxtx how they prefer to be identified?

  17. Andrew said,

    August 2, 2018 @ 7:30 am

    > That didn't stop the science fiction author Julian May from writing "Lowlives" in the word's frequent occurrence in her Pliocene Exile books.

    I found that a very confusing sentence until my researches showed me that Julian May is female.

    Yes, I have heard of Julian of Norwich, but I think of Julian as exclusively a male name nowadays. I dare say prefixing it with "science fiction author" also has some influence..

  18. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 2, 2018 @ 8:29 am

    Rosie: I think there's a difference between those compounds with the head on the left that are written hyphenated or separate (son-in-law, attorney general, man-at arms) and those that are written solid, especially those that I call verbnouns, such as breakwater (which isn't a kind of water but a breaker of water) or spoilsport (not a kind of sport but a spoiler of sport).

  19. Robert Coren said,

    August 2, 2018 @ 8:39 am

    In the opening chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo refers to one of the families attending his party as "Proudfoots". One of the members of that family loudly corrects this to "Proudfeet", but Bilbo sticks to his guns.

  20. Ellen K. said,

    August 2, 2018 @ 9:31 am

    Is "bigmouths" on the list for pronunciation rather than spelling?

    I would argue that all of them are on the list for pronunciation rather than spelling. But, yeah, that one stood out as not having a visual difference in the plural forms.

  21. Ellen K. said,

    August 2, 2018 @ 9:43 am

    Bigfeet seems wrong as a plural because even one bigfoot as multiple big feet. At least to my mind.

  22. David HD said,

    August 2, 2018 @ 11:32 am

    Nitpicking here but "Inuit" is not an uninflected plural – contemporary usage in Canada has adpoted the singular form "Inuk" when referring to individuals. (yes, Inuktitut also has the dual, and no, I don't see that getting borrowed into English or French anytime soon)

  23. ajay said,

    August 2, 2018 @ 11:43 am

    Bigfeet seems wrong as a plural because even one bigfoot as multiple big feet.

    I had the same thought regarding Blackfeet.

  24. John W Brewer said,

    August 2, 2018 @ 1:26 pm

    @Andrew – in the U.S. over the last century,the spelling "Julian" is as a statistical matter much more common for males than females, although I have myself known a female Julian. The spelling "Julianne" is more characteristically female and may or may not (depending on the person and context) be differentiated from "Julian" by stress. The medieval name born by the devout lady from Norwich also turns up in 20th century American female naming as Jillian and Gillian (hard-g in the latter is an unetymological spelling pronunciation) due to vowels having gotten muddled somewhere during the intervening centuries.

  25. DWalker07 said,

    August 2, 2018 @ 2:29 pm

    IS this related to "Sargeants Major" or "Attorneys General"?

  26. DWalker07 said,

    August 2, 2018 @ 2:32 pm

    Or, oops, "Sergeants Major". Bah on American spelling….

  27. CuConnacht said,

    August 2, 2018 @ 3:17 pm

    For reasons I cannot explain, "computer mice" never sounded right to me. I suppose the issue is moot now that the species is nearing extinction.

  28. Jim said,

    August 2, 2018 @ 6:46 pm

    Echoing @DWalker07, I really really want to use this to make the plural of "mother-in-law" be the one that *sounds* right.

    (Of course, if you have two such apartments — one for the parent of each in the couple, I guess — then I think the one-word shorthand does take the "s" at the end.)

  29. Joe Fineman said,

    August 2, 2018 @ 9:47 pm

    I have read that in the 19th-century US West, one of the ways you could tell a tenderfoot was that he made the plural "tenderfeet". That caused hilarity among nontenderfoots. Dictionaries these days give both forms, with "-foots" first.

  30. Emily said,

    August 2, 2018 @ 11:09 pm

    Do bigfeet eat Whoppers Junior?

    Also, I've sometimes seen the zero plural for "killdeer" even though they neither are nor kill deer (the name is onomatopoeic). I wonder if this is influenced by the fact that some gamebird names (e.g. quail, grouse) are zero plurals.

  31. Andreas Johansson said,

    August 3, 2018 @ 12:25 am

    Quite a few animal names have uninflected plurals: a few's been mentioned already in the thread; "sheep" and "fish" are a couple more. I'd thought this a more likely reason for uninflected plural "bigfoot" than human ethnonyms on the same patttern.

  32. tashhik said,

    August 3, 2018 @ 1:32 am

    “Big Feet” would fit the context better.

  33. Rodger C said,

    August 3, 2018 @ 9:42 am

    Julian of Norwich is now often called "Juliana."

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 3, 2018 @ 10:01 am

    Emily: They eat any kind of Junior they can get.

    As far as I'm concerned, "killdeers" is impossible because it contains "deers", even though as you say, deer aren't involved except in the Hobson-Jobson sense. However, people sometimes use zero plurals for non-game birds that surprise me. GloWBE has "Flocks of plover fly overhead, their wings seeming to open and close like scallop shells." (from cntraveler.com) and "Moving between the waterfowl were some Killdeer and Black-bellied Plover." (from citybirder.blogspot.com).

    Andreas Johansson: If I may—"a few" is normally plural, despite the "a". You needed "a few have been mentioned".

    It's not clear to me at all whether people think of bigfoots as more like humans or more like apes.

  35. Martha said,

    August 4, 2018 @ 12:16 pm

    "Ottomans" has always bothered me, but considerably less than "ottomen."

  36. Cuconnacht said,

    August 4, 2018 @ 12:26 pm

    I think you see Turkomen and Mussulmen as often as Turkomans and Mussulmans (not that you see any of them much these days), but etymologically the first two are no more justified than Ottomen.

  37. Joe Fineman said,

    August 4, 2018 @ 4:52 pm

    Dictionaries tell us that the plural of "man-of-war" is "men-of-war", but I wonder if that applies to the Portuguese jellyfish. I suppose it would not be quite as bad as "man-of-wars".

  38. Office said,

    August 5, 2018 @ 10:05 am

    Consider the Blackfoot or Blackfeet tribe of Native Americans. The name is a translation of the name in their language. (Lots more on Wikipedia.) The plural form has to do with people having two feet. In modern usage both forms are in use; it seems mostly Blackfeet in the US and Blackfoot in Canada.

    It doesn't seem that "Blackfoots" was ever very common. People would say something like "We met a group of Blackfoot".

  39. ktschwarz said,

    August 5, 2018 @ 4:06 pm

    That last comment (August 5, 2018 @ 10:05 am) is one of those spams that pass for real comments by copying text out of somebody else's real comment, while attaching the advertised URL to the author's name.

  40. Ellen Kozisek said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 9:05 am

    @Cuconnacht. I believe Martha is referring to the furniture (notice she writes ottomen, not Ottomen). Which makes the plural ottomen a bit odder than with Turkoman and Mussulman. Since those things we are resting our feet on aren't people.

  41. Rodger C said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 9:45 am

    Then there's "shamen," which always strikes me as the hallmark of a brainless new-ager.

  42. Cuconnacht said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 9:47 am

    @Ellen Kozisek: Ah, that makes sense. Thanks.

  43. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 10:22 am

    Those churches which have Julian(a) in their calendar all still call her Julian, as far as I can see. There's also a religious order called after her, which uses that name.

    As for birds, the use of the uninflected plural often (as in Jerry's second example) goes along with the capitalisation of the species name – I think it reflects a tendency to think of the species as a Thing, so that Killdeer, for instance, aren't just creatures you might come across, they are manifestations of the species, Killdeer. (In my experience this is not done with very common birds, e.g. you wouldn't say 'I saw three Sparrow'.)

  44. BZ said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 11:39 am

    Regarding the plural of "Mouse", the original Microsoft Mouse guide recommended using "mouse devices" to avoid alienating people who use "mouses" or "mice". This recommendation lives on in various computer references, including Microsoft's (https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/desktop/uxguide/inter-mouse) "Avoid using the plural mice; if you need to refer to more than one mouse, use mouse devices."

  45. David Marjanović said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 12:31 pm

    Yeah, that's one of the weirder features of English.

    those that I call verbnouns, such as breakwater (which isn't a kind of water but a breaker of water) or spoilsport (not a kind of sport but a spoiler of sport)

    These have been called "cutthroat compounds" in the literature.

  46. Robert Coren said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 7:52 pm

    The "cutthroat compound" referred t by @David Marjanović seems to be the pretty standard way of expressing such ideas in French: tire-bouchon "corkscrew" (literally "pull-cork", for possibly "pulls-cork"), couvre-chef, literally "cover-head", distorted into English "kerchief", etc. There are lots of English examples as well.

  47. Michele said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 2:45 pm

    @Jerry: "It's not clear to me at all whether people think of bigfoots as more like humans or more like apes."

    There's a difference? ;-)

  48. Geoffrey McLarney said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 12:08 pm

    In fact, even Julian of Norwich is not an example of Julian as a female name. Her own Christian name is not recorded: she is simply known by the name of the church where she lived as an anchoress, which was dedicated to one of two male Saints Julian.

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