The ADJECTIVEs

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The discussion about Donald Trump's exhortation to "Ask the gays" has focused on several linguistic dimensions: the definite article the,  the nounification gay, and the pluralization of gays.  This reminds me of (what I think is) a recent trend: the novel use of definite pluralized nounified adjectives, often in ironic contexts.

Thus "the poors":

[link] The potential for confusion is effectively nil (no one planning to go to the Commonwealth School will have their pilot chopper them over to the Commonwealth Academy, shrug, and assume that the exclusive private school has been transformed into a place where the poors go).

[link] There's nothing more annoying than haughty upper-middle-class social justice dorks getting on their high horses about a company used by the poors despite the fact that their betters have decided it's "not good for them."

[link] That is the standard NYC way of dealing with poverty: "Just wall off the poors so the tourists can't see them anymore."

Or "the youngs" and "the olds":

[link] While hiring Hadid is a great way for the brand to bring in the youngs via a product category they can actually afford (makeup), this is a pretty huge get for the model, too.

[link] Nevertheless, teaching the olds to chat like their kids do is likely to be a huge win—especially if they can be convinced to pay for things.

[link] TBQH, not a day goes by that the subject of Millennials and who they are and what they want and why the olds should give a hoot about them doesn't come up during multiple conversations.

[link] As the war between the youngs and the olds wages on, the film's male characters confront their histories of sexism.

And random other examples (of uncertain relevance):

[link] My ability to remain "willowy" while all the beautifuls and perfects pounded beer, pigged out on pizza, and put on the freshman 15 made me feel proud.

[link] Perhaps this notion of agricultural land is not as critically important to the urbans as it is to the rurals.

By "recent trend" I mean "something I've noticed in the last decade or so" — I do understand that this marks me as old to those for whom a decade or two is their entire sentient lifespan.

Of course, there's centuries of precedent for turning English adjectives into nouns (round, open, cold, primary), for pluralizing the results (principals, flats, blacks, whites), and for using definite articles with such nounifications of adjectives, whether singular or plural.

But still, there's something new-ish going on. One clue is the occasional ironic re-nounification of a denominal adjective — Kaili Joy Gray, "GOP Candidates Jewsplain Jewing To Jewishes. Goes Well As You'd Expect, Only Worse", Wonkette 12/4/2015.

Any ideas about the origins and progress of this pattern?

The OED gives sense 1.c. of old as "In pl. colloq. Old persons; (Austral. and N.Z.) spec. a person's parents":

1883   W. Besant All in Garden Fair (1885) ii. vii. 167   Young clever people..are more difficult to catch than the olds.
1890   Pall Mall Gaz. 30 Aug. 2/2   Although the 'Olds' have been the pioneers..of the movement, the 'Youngs' show an impatience with them at every meeting.
1977   Ripped & Torn vi. 6/2   No Olds Allowed: Runaways.
1982   Sydney Morning Herald 18 Sept. 1/2   Teenagers..try to avoid hassles with the olds.
1990   A. Duff Once were Warriors vii. 92   Whassa madda anyway, your olds been at it again?

Does this really come from Down Under? Or was there an independent invention in the U.S.?

 



43 Comments

  1. Dick Margulis said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 6:24 am

    "a company used by the poors despite the fact that their betters have decided"

    How is "the poors" different from "their betters," aside from the newishness of one and the oldishness of the other?

  2. Geoff said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 6:51 am

    58yo Australian here. 'The olds' for parents was common in my peer group in the 1970s.

  3. Ari Corcoran said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 6:56 am

    That's curious, if indeed it is an Australianism, for "the olds". I certainly remember it from the early 1970s. Quite distinct from "oldies", though both pejorative. "The olds", from memory, referred pretty much exclusively to parents, not to older people in general: it's what you called your mum and dad. The 1988 edition of the OUP's National dictionary doesn't cite it: not sure will happen with the edition coming out this year.

  4. Ari Corcoran said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 6:57 am

    Thanks @ Geoff! At least the two of us share the same memories!

  5. Ray said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 7:19 am

    when I hear this usage (the olds, the poors, the gays), I hear the voices of the same folks who say things like "that's totes adorbs" or "my mems about what the dubs did to the iraqi peeps bring out all the feels." it's not only a certain age group, but ones who adopted a kind of defensive irony-speak during their years of online discourse. (ironic, because "the s" construction is seen, I suspect, as uncultured, uneducated, maybe even un-urban.) and in the process, it's not only nouns but adjectives and adverbs that get this lisping, dumbed-down kind of treatment.

  6. Ralph J Hickok said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 8:18 am

    Sounds like bad Hemingway to me :)

  7. Michael said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 8:19 am

    Someone should ngram a few of these to see a possible increase.

  8. Zeppelin said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 8:34 am

    Ray:

    The "the s" construction is widely considered politically incorrect or borderline bigoted among young people who care about that sort of thing (the preferred usage being "ADJECTIVE people", sticking to "person-first" language). Which is where, I suspect, the ironic usage originates — it draws on the perceived absurdity and crudeness of the construction.

    So you are right that it's seen as "uncultured", but in the same way that calling black people "negroes" perhaps more generally is. You cringe when your grandmother calls someone "a nice young negro", and you similarly cringe when your father calls someone "a gay".

    As a data point, I'm gay and in my late twenties, and would only call myself "a gay" if I intended bitter sarcasm.

  9. Zeppelin said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 8:40 am

    Basically, the construction is marked because the only people who still employ it are either out of touch with modern discourse on race/gender/sexuality issues, or else deliberately refusing to adopt the phrasing preferred by those affected.
    It marks you as "an old" or else…"a right-wing"? So it lends itself to ironic use by those who do normally avoid it.

  10. Graeme said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 9:02 am

    'Littlies' 'Oldies' 'Fatties'. The diminutive '-ies' leaves room for pejorative implication. Yet may also takes some sting out of things. Not so for 'homos' (pr 'home-ohs') which is street level prejudice from the barely tolerant 'homosexuals'.

    'Aboriginal/s' was long a common noun in Australia. You still hear oldies use it – including some self referentially. The grammatically correct frowned but maybe it was an inevitable truncation. 'Indigenous Australians' is now de rigeur if, a bit formal. ('Koori', 'Murri' and 'Nyungar' give at least passing respect to native languages. 'Black fella/s' is common Aboriginal English.)

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 9:28 am

    The 1977 OED cite is a bit misleading. Ripped & Torn was an important early UK punk-rock fanzine, but it in no sense coined the "No Olds Allowed" phrase and there's a use-v.-mention issue, because (I confirmed this b/c a page-by-page scan of the relevant issue is Out There on the web) it was just in the album reviews section and just accurately reporting the title of the album under review. I.e., whoever had illicitly released a bootleg of a then-recent Runaways concert (April 1, 1977 at the Santa Monica Civic Center) had titled that bootleg "No Olds Allowed." The question is why, since while understandable it sounds quite unidiomatic to my ear, despite my being a native speaker of what is approximately the right variety of English (US suburban white rock music fan of the right cohort to have gone through adolescence in the 1970's). Maybe it was at the time more idiomatic-sounding to the core Runaways fan base of the moment (maybe on average five or six years older than me and living in SoCal rather than on the East coast)? Maybe it's on the record because it was something actually said at the show in a bit of between-song stage patter? (The whole album is up on youtube in two side-long segments, so anyone with 40 minutes to spare could check out that hypothesis.) Maybe it was just an attempted coinage of what would hopefully sound like cutting-edge teen slang that failed to actually catch on above the Equator? Something else?

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 9:39 am

    There's at least one subculture full of people who spend quite a lot of time and energy arguing with each other about nomenclature where "ADJECTIVE people" is the opposite of "person first." "Person first" is in that perhaps narrower sense a literal word-order thing that involves e.g. the claim that "persons with disabilities" is a more appropriate thing to say than "disabled people." Some within the group that could be described by either of those phrases seem to have Very Strong Opinions on why one is wonderful and the other degrading, but alas they do not agree as to which is which, which makes things difficult for well-meaning outsiders. "NOUNS of color" may reflect a similar approach, although in that specific case there's the separate problem that "colored people" is probably fatally skunked by archaic usage (and also has/had a narrower referent than "persons of color").

  13. Rodger C said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 10:12 am

    I think I've noted this before, but I once, I swear, taught at a college that had recycle bins labeled PAPER OF COLOR.

  14. Levantine said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 10:21 am

    Rodger C, are you sure the sign wasn't intended humorously? I find it almost impossible to believe that 'colo[u]red paper' could offend anyone.

    In the UK, it's still OK to say 'coloureds' (as well as 'whites' and 'lights') in reference to clothes that are being laundered.

  15. Rodger C said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 11:37 am

    Levantine, I find it very difficult to imagine the administration of that college displaying a conscious sense of humor.

  16. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 11:39 am

    Could there be some influence from those languages in which nominalization of adjectives is normal ( die Alten, los pobres etc.)?

  17. Brett said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 11:51 am

    @Levantine: In the U.S., that kind of laundry is usually referred to as "colors," as in: "I have a load of colors." The contrasting term is "whites," and both are typically construed not as plurals but as mass nouns. (I recall an episode of the sitcom Mad About You with Paul Reiser holding up a striped shirt and saying, "Remind me again. Is this whites or colors?") "Whites" and "colors" are also the names of the corresponding laundry cycles, printed on washing machines.

    I've never heard "lights," but it might be out there. The distinction between white and lightly colored laundry items is not salient for me; since I don't use bleach, I can just throw them in together.

  18. Levantine said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 12:12 pm

    Brett, I lived in the States for a number of years but never paid much attention to what was written on the washing machines I used. The idea of 'lights' being their own category was instilled in me by my mother, who always washes pastel colours and beiges separately from either whites or darks ('darks' to me is the same as 'coloureds' and is what I tend to say).

  19. Lukas said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 12:39 pm

    First time I noticed this was with "the Internets", a way of making fun of people who don't know how the Internet works, and assume that there might be more than one of them. I guess it might be possible that this helped popularize the concept of ironically pluralizing words in order to imply that other groups of people are uninformed or out of touch, to the point where this now works in sentences where there is no obvious reason why the plural would imply uninformedness.

  20. Ralph J Hickok said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 12:50 pm

    I believe "the Internets" arose in mockery of Sen. Ted Stevens' explanation: "The internet is not a big truck. It's a series of tubes."

  21. Brett said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 1:32 pm

    @Ralph J. Hickok: It's older than the Stevens quote, although I couldn't tell you by how much. The fame of the "series of tubes" incident probably did a lot for the popularity of "the Internets" though.

  22. john burke said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 3:40 pm

    I don't remember seeing intransitive "wage" before. A novelty, or am I just trapped in the Recency Illusion once again?

  23. David Marjanović said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 4:56 pm

    I think the Internets and teh intarwebz have the same origin as the random pluralizations in lolcat language: mockeries of hypercorrectivisms by native speakers of Japanese.

    The innertubes, though, lead straight to Sen. Stevens.

  24. Graeme said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 7:41 pm

    So why is it common for people to refer (even to themselves as) 'an insider' or generally to 'outsiders'. But I can't recall hearing of 'the insiders/outsiders'. Does the definite article add an edge of otherness?

  25. Zeppelin said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 8:23 pm

    J.W. Brenner:
    I've always understood "person first" to mean metaphorically putting the person first. So it doesn't matter (much) whether you say "disabled people" or "people with disabilities", what matters is that you don't say "the blind" or "paraplegics" or whatever, erasing the person completely. "Gay people" definitely qualifies as a "person first" alternative to "gays" for me.

  26. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 8:57 pm

    FWIW, Wikipedia's discussion is consistent with the narrower word-order-focused sense I'd referenced: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/People-first_language.

  27. JS said,

    June 19, 2016 @ 3:26 am

    Given Trump's past references to "the Hispanics," "the blacks," and "the Muslims," "the gays" was only a matter of time. The real puzzle is whether all this is genuine insensitivity or more schtick.

  28. Zeppelin said,

    June 19, 2016 @ 10:31 am

    J.W. Brewer: Oh, I'm sorry, I got your name wrong!

    And I'm sure you're right that yours is the original definition of "person first". I was more pointing out that in my own social circles it seems to be understood in a broader sense. Or I suppose you could argue the term is being misappropriated and we should be saying "person-inclusive" language or something, instead. It might be good to make the distinction anyway, given the mixed reception of [grammatically] "person first" language.

  29. Lesley Jeffries said,

    June 19, 2016 @ 1:02 pm

    Comedian Stewart Lee uses 'the UKIPs' to belittle supporters of the Eurosceptic political party in the UK. Much less respectful – deliberately so – than 'UKIP supporters'.

  30. Levantine said,

    June 19, 2016 @ 1:42 pm

    Lesley Jeffries' comment made me think of an interesting example where it's the anarthrous version that is the less legitimising: 'Islamic State', which is what you almost always hear, versus 'the Islamic State', which is what those who coined the name would have us say.

  31. C said,

    June 20, 2016 @ 2:30 am

    I've always intuited that "the gays" was outdated, because the formula is the same as "the blacks" and "the chinese".

  32. Greg Malivuk said,

    June 20, 2016 @ 7:52 am

    The definite pluralization of nounified adjectives in general may be recent, but "the gays" first became common in the 1970s, according to Google Books.

  33. Vulcan with a Mullet said,

    June 20, 2016 @ 11:20 am

    I may be wrong, but my recollection was that "The Internets" stems from a George W. Bushism from circa 2002-ish… definitely a different source from the "Series of Tubes" meme.
    I would Google it but the Internets happen to be partially blocked here at my office… :D

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 20, 2016 @ 12:34 pm

    Graeme: If you haven't seen "the Insiders", you're not in touch with the right conspiracy theories. Try None Dare Call it Conspiracy by Gary Allen.

  35. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 20, 2016 @ 12:49 pm

    The arthrous bigram "the [B/b]lacks"* has fallen pretty dramatically in the google n-gram corpus, down about 63% as of 2008 from its early '70's peak. But so has anarthrous "[B/b]lacks," which is down a bit over 50% as of its mid-70's peak. So the arthrous:anarthrous ratio has definitely shifted in favor of the latter (which was always much more common anyway) but not overwhelmingly so. But it may be relevant to this issue that much although not all of the drop in "[B/b]lacks" seems to be explained by the rise of "African-Americans," and FWIW "the African-Americans" seems to be extremely rare.

    *At least at one point historically, capitalizing versus lowercasing "black" (or "white," for that matter) when used in the racial-group sense was an important issue for some people. I can't say I fully understand the dynamics of that issue or its history, but there both were and are enough Capitalizers that you need to do a case-insensitive search to be sure you don't miss something material about the arthrous v. anarthrous trendlines. (Obviously not all hits for either arthrous or anarthrous are the racial-group sense.)

  36. DWalker said,

    June 20, 2016 @ 2:10 pm

    "The youngs"… yes, that's Robert Young and his kin.

  37. Gwen Katz said,

    June 20, 2016 @ 5:19 pm

    Nowadays "the olds," or more commonly "an old," is part of the enormous corpus of "I can't believe I'm grown up!" vocabulary used by late 20-somethings and early 30-somethings. See also "adulting."

  38. Jason said,

    June 20, 2016 @ 9:25 pm

    "Internets" was definitely Bush, from the 2004 presidential debates (you can look it up on the internets). I remember this very clearly from watching that debate in a college auditorium. The comedic timing was perfect: Bush is anxious to respond, and when he finally gets his turn he very deliberately states: "I heard a rumor on the" – pause for emphasis – "internets." The room exploded.

    But this isn't really an example of the phenomenon in question, which specifically refers to people. Detaching yourself from a group of people by calling them "the Xs" indicates that you're talking about those people, over there, not people like us. If you associate with gay people on a regular basis, "the gays" is not a concept that exists for you. And of course it implies monolithicness, since you don't recognize distinctions within a group that you don't know anything about. The irony of the original Trump comment is that he's trying to talk about how good he would be for gay people while signalling that he doesn't actually know anything about them.

    So it seems like the origin is this sort of genuine detachment via people who actually think of certain groups as "the Xs," and then the effect of distancing oneself from the subject is repurposed. "The war between the olds and the youngs" indicates that the writer is talking about those groups as theoretical constructs, whereas "no olds allowed" is actually sincere: it's an intentional implication that the writer does not associate with old people.

  39. chris said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 5:41 am

    IIRC, there was another politician who made a comment about having very good relations with "the blacks" and that was widely derided as self-refuting: if he really had such good relations, he would have known not to refer to them as "the blacks", and furthermore, if he *had* good relations before saying that, he wouldn't anymore.

  40. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 11:24 am

    I am still stuck with the issue I raised in the (or an?) earlier thread. If a politician talks about how much he cares about (and/or how good his policies will be for) "the LGBT community" or "the African-American community" there is, it seems to me, pretty much the same degree of presupposed monolithicness as if he says "the gays" or "the blacks." Not clear to me whether there's less implication of "detachment" since that's a somewhat vaguer concept, but there may certainly still be an implication of "you people over there on that side of the room who represent a monolithic group that I am myself not part of but would still appreciate the votes of." There's an obvious difference insofar as the "the Xish community" forms are taken to be conventionally polite/respectful in a way that the "the X's" forms aren't, by at least some significant percentage of current AmEng speakers. I'm just not convinced the difference between what's perceived as polite/respectful and what's not is based on something objective that's inherent in differences in syntactic or semantic structure versus the same sort of arbitrary/contingent historical happenstance that so often accounts for such differences.

  41. Gwen Katz said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 12:04 pm

    I don't think "the X community" implies that everyone in that group is identical or that they all think the same thing. It just suggests the overall average opinion of the group.

    But let's not overlook the contextual difference of saying "X loves me!" versus "My policies will be good for X." The former is putting words into their mouths, which makes lumping them all together a lot more egregious.

  42. Geoff McLarney said,

    June 23, 2016 @ 6:38 am

    For peak irony, of course, it's "teh gheyz".

  43. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    June 28, 2016 @ 2:01 am

    Just in: Dumbs gone to Iceland:
    https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/1353407/roy-hodgson-quits-after-england-team-humiliated-by-minnows-at-euro-2016/

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