Reader TM writes:
A language anomaly of sorts that has entertained me for some time is the term "grown man."
First, it's a term that we use ONLY in circumstances where someone is, in fact, not acting like a grown man; yet the use of the term is literal, not ironic. E.g., "I can't believe that a grown man would act this way." The term is not used in any other context, as far as I know.
Second, there is no such term as "grown woman." No one ever says that.
Taking up TM's second point first, we find contrary evidence in counts from COCA:
|grown man 475||grown men 392|
|grown woman 214||grown women 58|
So "grown woman/women" occurs in COCA's 450 million words at roughly one third of the rate of "grown man/men" – (214+58)/(475+392) = 31.4%. Less frequent, sure, but not even close to the "nobody says" class. In fact, the OED's earliest citation for grown in the sense "Arrived at maturity; grown-up" is an instance of "grown woman" (in the writings of John Locke, no less):
1690 J. Locke Some Thoughts conc. Educ. §12, I saw lately a Pair of China Shoes, which I was told were for a grown Woman.., they would scarce have been big enough for one of our little Girls.
Curiously, there's an earlier citation for a (now unused) comparative:
1645 J. Cotton Way Churches New-Eng. 9 The Lords Supper, whereto persons of growner yeares, and fit to examine themselves, are invited.
I checked my intuition that growner is no longer part of the standard language — if it ever was — by observing that it doesn't occur in the 450 million words of COCA, and that occurrences in sources like Google Books are cute childish overgeneralizations. Thus in Grace Octavia's 2011 Something She Can Feel, we get the following bit of dialogue:
"We need to start celebrating now."
"Celebrating what? It's just another year."
"You're one year growner!"
"More grown . . . whatever." She flipped her hand at me.
"Okay, English teacher."
Still, I feel that "persons of growner years" — "growners" for short — is an expression with real potential, even if no one other than John Cotton seems ever to have used it in print.
But anyhow, grown man and grown woman are by no means isolated collocations. Uncompared grown in the sense "Arrived at maturity; grown-up" also occurs as a modifier of many other head nouns as well. For example, with counts from COCA:
|grown son 69||grown sons 99|
|grown daughter 70||grown daughters 77|
|grown boy 6||grown boys 8|
|grown girl 2||grown girls 5|
|grown child 18||grown children 451|
|grown kid 0||grown kids 47|
|grown person 18||grown people 40|
|grown adult 11||grown adults 11|
|grown folk 5||grown folks 16|
OK, so what about TM's first point, that we "use [grown man] ONLY in circumstances where someone is, in fact, not acting like a grown man"?
This intuition seems off the mark to me as well. In general, Grice's maxim of quantity applies:
Make your contribution as informative as is required for the current purposes of the exchange.
Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.
So reference to a "grown man", as opposed to simply a "man", generally implies on Gricean grounds that we're talking about men who are grown and not grown, or maybe grown and growner. But there are lots of reasons to evoke this background, and to emphasize the growner end of the spectrum, besides "circumstances where someone is, in fact, not acting like a grown man".
So far, however, this is just my intution against TM's intution. Let's take a look at some examples — say, a random set of 10 "grown man" examples from COCA. Most of these are about size or age, not childish behavior:
Spanning the gorge is a forest with a canopy so dense that a grown man, if he steps carefully, can walk across it;
Although I was raised in West Virginia, I first learned about these events as a nearly grown man when I saw the movie Matewan, John Sayles's cinematic vision of the seminal events of the mine wars.
In Mississippi, for example. springtime rains can cause runoff so powerful that it carves deep gullies in valuable farmland — deep enough for a grown man to stand in.
"I'll bet that's the first time you've carried a grown man on your back, " he tells his chauffeur.
These new lepidoptera had abandoned the four-part life cycle of egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, imago — in favor of 1) sex between contending adults, 2) a three- or four-month pregnancy, and 3) the dropping of fully formed winged infants (as few as one, as many as a thousand) that scavenged, preyed, and grew, no matter the species, as large as a grown man's hand.
For Michael, that should have been a wake-up call. Whether or not people believed he was molesting young boys, it was clear that he should, at the very least, keep children at a distance. he never did. People asked then, and still do: Where were the parents? How could they let a grown man share a bed with their kids?
"A woman who is 5-foot-4 and 120 pounds is no match for a grown man, and that goes for traveling around the world, hiking in the Australian Outback or hiking in your hometown park," said Oswald.
He managed to deceive hundreds of people. Would you be fooled by a grown man posing as a high school student?
I only saw one that was clearly about childish behavior (only one out of my sample of 10 — there are plenty of others in the 465 other occurrences in the corpus):
"How ridiculous-a grown man playing with children!"
And there was one more involving a frozen idiom that expresses the concept of immature behavior on the part of a mature male:
Machines that take grass-cutting to another level altogether, where comfort and convenience are everything, and where the accoutrements could make a grown man weep.
This is pretty much what we expect on Gricean grounds, I think; and I'd predict that we'd see something similar for modifiers like adult, mature, elderly, and so on.
So TM missed the mark on both counts. This is nothing to be ashamed of, in my opinion — none of us ought to rely uncritically on our intuitions about usage, which are often mistaken, even with respect to the sorts of language that we encounter and use every day.