Annals of metonymy

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There are some nice examples in Leah Rozen, "Hey, Ryan, Talk to the Dress", NYT 2/10/2010:

RYAN, Ryan, Ryan. It’s Journalism 101: who, what, when, where and why, as in, “Who are you wearing?” […]

Susan Kaufman, editor of People StyleWatch, said she lost it when Mr. Seacrest didn’t immediately quiz an elegant-looking Sandra Bullock — who would later win as Best Actress — about her shimmery frock (by Marchesa). “I’m screaming at the TV: ‘Ask her who’s she wearing!’ ” Ms. Kaufman said. “I was so angry, my husband was laughing at me.”

Different versions of the same question come up in Elizabeth Wellington, "Mirror, Mirror: So, E!, whatever happened to 'Who are you wearing'?", Philadelphia Inquirer 2/10/2010:

Erica Salmon, president of Mullica Hill-based Red Carpet MVP (formerly the Fantasy Fashion League), wholeheartedly agreed. In the online game that mirrors fantasy football, points are awarded for how many times designers' names are mentioned by the media during red carpet season. The Oscars are the championship game.

"We can't just use E! anymore," said Salmon, who has been forced to use because E! didn't give her players enough information. "Sometimes I wish I had a direct line to Ryan's mike and I'd say, 'Dude, please ask who are they wearing?' " Salmon said. "That's what we need to know."

And dozens of other news outlets are discussing the same question, as they've been doing more and more often over the years (about 35 times more often than "Who are you reading?", apparently). The earliest example in Google's news archive is "Red Carpet, Big Smiles, Tight Security", San Jose Mercury News, 3/26/1991:

Peggy Lipton, Dianne Wiest and a buxom Egyptian model named Kelli fielded the evening's most pressing question: "Who are you wearing?"

However, a search in ProQuest's Historical Newspaper Archive turns up Genevieve Buck, "Chili, Bud kick off Chicago fashions", Chicago Tribune 4/11/1984:

"Who are you wearing?" turned out to be the game of the evening.

So (pending Ben Zimmer's discovery of a citation in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's diary) it appears that this is an expression that emerged in the 1980s in a general fashion-show context, and became a touchstone of Oscar-night reportage at some point over the past decade or two.

It also turns out that Who Are You Wearing? was a reality TV show, as of a couple of years ago. Somehow, I managed to miss it.

[Update: more here.]


  1. Brett said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 9:29 am

    I associate "Who are you wearking?" with one incident I remember from the late 1990s, which gave at least one actress's opinion of the question. An extremely obnoxious crew of "reporters" from Mad TV were swarming around at (I think) the Emmys. Most celebrities tried to minimize their contact with the Mad TV folks, but the crew of Ally McBeal had evidently been instructed to cooperate with them. After they talked with Jane Krakowski, the actress remarked to it had been the most pleasant interview she'd given that afternoon. The spoof reporters, seemingly genuinely surprised, asked why, and Krakowski said they were the only people who were actually interested in her opinions instead of just asking, "Who are you wearing?"

  2. DonBoy said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 9:44 am

    SNL did a sketch about this 10-ish years ago, maybe less; it was coverage of a State of the Union as if it were the Oscars. IIRC, Tom Delay's answer to "Who are you wearing?" was "uh…Today's Man?"

  3. Popup said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 11:30 am

    Shouldn't it be 'whom are you wearing?'

    (Sorry, I learned English as a foreign language, and the distinction between who and whom was drummed into me at an early age – I can't help it. Drives my (native English) wife mad.)

    [(myl) No, I don't think so. As James Thurber explained in his Ladies' and Gentlemen's Guide to Modern English Usage,

    A common rule for determining whether "who" or "whom" is right is to substitute "she" for "who," and "her" for "whom," and see which sounds the better. Take the sentence, "He met a woman who they said was an actress." Now if "who" is correct then "she" can be used in its place. Let us try it. "He met a woman she they said was an actress." That instantly rings false. It can't be right. Hence the proper usage is "whom."

    But "Her are you wearing?" certainly rings false in this case, so the proper usage must be "who".

    Seriously, as Geoff Pullum explained back in 2004,

    Using whom for who isn't regularization. It's a desperately insecure clutching after a form that people no longer know where to use or how to control. Whom is like some strange object — a Krummhorn, a unicycle, a wax cylinder recorder — found in grandpa's attic: people don't want to throw it out, but neither do they know what to do with it. So they keep it around, sticking an m on the end of who every now and then when it seems like an important occasion. Columbus Day, for example, or when trying to impress a grammarian or a maitre d'hotel (whom will be our waiter tonight?).

    Kiss whom goodbye. It is rarely heard in conversation now, and just about never in clause-initial position. This word is nearly dead. It is close to being no more. It has all but ceased to be. If it wasn't Magic-Markered onto a defaced flag from time to time it would be pushing up the daisies. This is almost an ex-word.


  4. DonBoy said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 11:41 am

    Popup, "whom" as the first word of a question sounds, to me, downright incorrect, despite the rule. (By contrast, "To whom did you give that?" sounds overly formal, but not wrong, and think it's the preposition/whom-as-indirect-object that makes the difference.) There's no song called "Whom Do You Love".

    And of course I'm sure I'm now LL's bete noir: the guy who thinks he knows how his own language works, but doesn't.

  5. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 11:49 am

    A case can even be made that the word "whom" does not in fact exist in some commonly used varieties of contemporary English.

  6. Popup said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 11:52 am

    I may well be wrong DonBoy. As I said, I don't have a native ear, just what was drummed into me in school. (And shaped by years of reading.)
    (We have all seen lots of horror stories about the kind of grammatical errors are being spouted by native teachers. Just imagine the errors that can be taught by non-natives!)

  7. TootsNYC said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 11:52 am

    In a way, the true question is, "whose design are you wearing," and lopping off the "design" part, plus the possessive, leaves you with "who."

  8. Dan T. said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    Shame on the reporters if they want to focus on irrelevancies like the movies those people make for a living, instead of the truly important things like what (and who) they're wearing!

  9. Spell Me Jeff said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

    Popup, I wonder if you are new to LL? No one here would disagree that a body of grammatical prescriptions exists, and that most of us were taught them in school. Many of us are academics and are quite capable of generating "correct" prose. (I'm an English professor, myself. QED.) Certainly this is true of the board's owner(s). Check their credentials. You'll be impressed.

    More to the point here is what people really say. How the language really works; not the way school marms tell us it is supposed to work. As any student of any anthropological field would tell you, don't just study doctrine; study practice as well.

  10. Ken Grabach said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 12:48 pm

    In Elizabeth Barrett Browning's day, I think, the answer would have always been, "Frederick Worth." Or, "This old thing? I found it in Godie's Lady's Book a year ago."

  11. Glen Goffin said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

    Perhaps this post should rather have been titled, "The Anals of Metonymy"? Of course, I'm just kidding. I thoroughly enjoy these types of discussions!

  12. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

    Is this like Heracles wearing the Nemean lion?

  13. Faldone said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    Or Anthony Hopkins wearing the security guard.

    The difference between us native speakers and ESL students having "rules" drummed into them is that native speakers have already learned the real rules and thus have defenses against the zombies.

  14. Spectre-7 said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 4:23 pm

    Or Anthony Hopkins wearing the security guard.

    Thanks for that! I haven't stopped laughing yet.

  15. Faldone said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 5:10 pm

    It also turns out that Who Are You Wearing? was a reality TV show, as of a couple of years ago. Somehow, I managed to miss it.

    And I missed the Oscar connection. Leave it to Savage Chickens and LL to fill that little lacuna.

  16. Peter said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 7:29 pm

    "Who are you wearing" always reminds me of an old joke:

    A man goes to a fancy dress party completely nude, with a naked lady on his back. Someone asks what his costume is meant to be. "I'm a snail. This is Michelle."

  17. TB said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 8:14 pm

    Ken Grabach, surely Elizabeth Barrett Browning predates Worth. I think she died around 1860, which is when he was setting up shop.

    I would probably think of Joan Rivers as the popularizer of "Who are you wearing?" though certainly not the originator.

  18. Talpra said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 9:59 pm

    It is common for people who wear designer clothes to refer to the clothing by the designer's name. Like referring to designer shoes by Jimmy Choo as "my Jimmy Choo's," or to a Prada handbag as "my Prada." So it would follow that the convention is to ask, "Who are you wearing?" when asking about which designer made the clothes for the celebrity wearing the designer gown, or whatnot.

    [(myl) Indeed. This sort of reference is an instance of the rhetorical technique known as metonymy…]

  19. Gregory Dyke said,

    March 12, 2010 @ 4:59 am

    I hope I'm not the only person who had a huge amount of difficulty extracting the semantics of "Who are you wearing".

    I spent 5 minutes reading and re-reading, hoping that the Mark had left some kind of clue to what the sentence means.

  20. Joe said,

    March 12, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

    @ Faldone:

    How 'bout this one?

    Host: Who are you wearing out?
    Hannibal: One of the security guards.

  21. Asher said,

    March 12, 2010 @ 10:22 pm

    «"He met a woman she they said was an actress." That instantly rings false. It can't be right. Hence the proper usage is "whom."»

    But try inserting "her" into that. "He met a woman her they said was an actress." How does that ring any truer than the substitution with "she"?

    If you *are* desperate to use "whom" – and to use "whom" "correctly", mind – then surely case is the only way to decide how to do so. Rather, if your own grammar tells you that some usage is fine, don't second-guess it.

  22. Spectre-7 said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 1:28 am

    @Gregory Dyke

    The phrase is shorthand for asking whose clothing designs you're wearing. It's often asked on the red carpet, and elicits responses like, "Vera Wang."


    You may want to check and make sure your hair is intact, as a low-flying joke has just gone over your head. ;)

  23. Asher said,

    March 14, 2010 @ 5:51 am


    The word "seriously" following that section should really have been enough to make me realise that!

  24. DonBoy said,

    March 14, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

    If anyone's still here, I note the headline "Black Like Whom?" at Slate, which also triggers my "I don't THINK so" response. (Despite it being a reference to the obviously-correct "Black Like Me.")

  25. Barbara Partee said,

    March 14, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

    @Popup — I don't think anyone has quite answered your question straightforwardly. You are perfectly right about the prescriptive rules; and a sensible application of the he/him test confirms it (most of the examples given so far were humorous, intentionally applying the test in a foolishly literal way). So since the corresponding declarative is "I'm wearing him", not "I'm wearing he", the prescriptively correct form for a who-whom-distinguishing dialect is "Whom are you wearing?". Same test shows that it should be "Who shall I say is calling?", not 'whom'.
    The rest of the discussion here has mostly been meta-level discussion, about who if anyone uses "whom" at all anymore, and the comments point to the fact that "whom" generally sounds out of place if any of the other features of a sentence mark it as colloquial; it remains mainly in relatively formal styles. I think one remaining absolute is that if you bring a preposition to the front in a question (e.g. To whom did you address it?), you can't follow it with "who". But if you leave the preposition at the end (Who did you address it to?), then 'Who' is much more common, though 'Whom' would still count as prescriptively correct.
    I sympathize with your plight. I had an aunt and uncle and cousins who loved joking and teasing, and I was always very gullible, and could never tell if they were giving me a real answer to a question or just teasing me. And there was no one in the family who would reliably give me a straight answer. I spent two weeks with them one summer, and even though I knew they might be joking at any given time, I never knew when, and it was REALLY hard on me! In my own family, my father would often give facetious answers, but I could always go to my mother to find out if it was a joke or not. So I'm being mom.

  26. Popup said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 8:42 am

    Thanks Barbara,
    I realize that my usage of 'whom' borders on archaic, but, as I said, I was taught it, and to my ear it simply sounds correct.

    I have never lived in an English-speaking environment, and I pick up my idioms from scientific articles and literature, neither of which is representative of modern spoken English.

  27. ASG said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 11:54 am

    Late as usual, but I thought I'd mention that the confusion about the "Who are you wearing?" question was made into a joke in the Ricky Gervais series Extras a few years ago. Maggie Jacobs (Gervais' character's naive and slightly dim best friend) buys a beautiful dress that she can't afford for an awards show. The following conversation ensues on the red carpet a few nights later:

    Reporter: Who are you wearing?
    Maggie: Maggie.
    Reporter: No, who are you wearing?
    Maggie: Maggie Jacobs.
    Andy: No, whose dress is that?
    Maggie: Mine.
    Andy: [to reporter] She wins the award. Come on.

    For the record, I'd never heard the phrase before seeing this show myself, and would have been just as confused as Maggie if that had happened to me!

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