Dignify diathesis

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Are we losing it? [*] It's been almost three weeks since the latest and greatest episode in the News Corporation phone-hacking scandal began dominating the world's news, and no one at Language Log has yet found a linguistic angle. I mean, Geoff Pullum connected a World Series victory with Strunk & White; I found a way to put Paris Hilton together with birdsong syntax; surely we can relate Rupert Murdoch to hypotaxis, or Rebekah Brooks to FOXP2?

Well, not so far. But this morning, I've got at least the peripheral glimmer of a connection.

Don van Natta Jr., "Suspicions About Former Editor in Battle Over Story Complicate Hacking Scandal, NYT 7/22/2011 (Obligatory screenshot…):

On the BBC Thursday night, Mr. [Robert] Peston reported that the standards committee run by Mr. Lewis had fired an editor at The Sun for “previous work” he had done at The News of the World.

Shortly after, Tom Watson, a Labour member of Parliament, accused Mr. Peston on Twitter of “distracting” readers from questions that were raised earlier in the day about the veracity of James Murdoch’s testimony at a Parliamentary committee hearing.

Mr. Watson, who had questioned the Murdochs at the session on Tuesday, told Mr. Peston that “you are being spoon-fed stories” and accused him of being “a patsy” for News International.

Mr. Peston dismissed Mr. Watson’s accusations, saying on Twitter that they did not dignify a reply.

The pattern that I'm used to involves an accused party refusing to dignify accusations by replying. Thus the Merriam-Webster entry for dignify includes the example "He said he wouldn't dignify his opponents' accusations by responding to them". But in Mr. van Natta's story, the accusations turn up in the subject position — rather than Mr. Peston refusing to dignify the accusations with a reply, the accusations themselves "did not dignify a reply".

Now, there are normal diathesis alternations in English where the same logical argument of a verb can show up sometimes in object and sometimes in subject position, e.g.

Kim did not cut the salami with a knife ~ The salami did not cut easily

But I can't think of any other cases of the type

X (not) Verb Y with Z ~ Y (not) Verb Z

In the salami-cutting case, that would be "The salami did not cut a knife", which is backwards relative to the actual "A knife did not cut the salami".

My intuitions, FWIW, tell me that accusation-dignifying allows a subset of the frames seen for salami-cutting:

A X cut the salami with her knife X dignified the accusation with her reply
B Her knife cut the salami Her reply dignified the accusation
C The salami cut easily ??The accusation dignified easily
D Her knife cut easily ??Her reply dignified easily
E *The salami cut her knife *The accusation dignified her reply

(A) and (B) are fine for both; (C) and (D) are fine for the salami-cutting, but questionable for the accusation-dignifying; and (E) ought to be completely out of the question for both (assuming the same events are under discussion). But (E) is exactly what we see in the last sentence of the NYT article.

So my first thought was that the NYT phrase was the result of an editing error — some slip of the brain or fingers. Thus someone might have started with "… that he would not dignify them with a reply", then decided to change this to "they did not deserve a reply", and mistakenly retyped "dignify" instead of "deserve" in the revised version.

But a quick web search suggests that some people may see "ACCUSATION dignify REPLY" as a valid frame  for dignify:

Normally a comment like this doesn't dignify a reply.
Finally, I have to respond to Mr. Heirdoug, although his venom does not dignify a reply.
"your accusations ~ don't dignify a reply" ~ he said on twitter
You are so full of it that your message does not dignify a reply other than to say you are full of crap.

And some examples show up in published books:

On the issue of a deal to drop charges against Junger, he is quoted as saying that the allegation by Junger that a deal had been struck 'does not dignify a reply.'
This espoused Trinitarian answer is so absurd it doesn't even dignify a reply.
This is almost too stupid to dignify a reply.
Why not delegate dysphagia evaluation and treatment to someone who is trained and understands oral musculature, pharyngeal, laryngeal movements, and respiration. Lastly, I will not even dignify a reply to Ms. Lane's comment, …
Your insinuation did not dignify a response.
… the SPDC replied, "The allegation that children are used as human minesweepers and shields is too absurd and ridiculous to dignify a response."
“The allegations do not dignify a response,” Ullman told CNN.
These allegations are so ludicrous that they hardly dignify a response….

There are even some examples previously published in the New York Times, though in the past they've always been in direct quotations:

Ms. Quinn, when asked by reporters about Mr. Dunleavy's comments, said they were "so outrageous I don't even think they dignify a response."
Steven Greenberg, a spokesman for Mr. McCall, said the governor's comments "do not dignify a response."
He said he and his wife ignored the e-mail messages because “we thought they were so insulting they didn't dignify a response”
When asked whether Mr. Moore would respond directly to Mr. Huckabee, one of the filmmaker’s media representatives said the candidate’s remarks “didn’t really dignify a response.”
Any inquiries to our office appear to be a backdoor reference to potential tampering charges which simply do not dignify a response.

So maybe, I thought, Robert Peston actually tweeted that Tom Watson's accusation did not "dignify a reply", and Don van Natta just quoted him (albeit indirectly) in the NYT story?

But not so. Here's the exchange of tweets between Peston and Watson, from Friday 7/21/2011:

(3:52 pm)
Why Sun story now @Peston? More spin to deflect Myler/Crone statement? Where's your dignity?
(4:10 pm)
@tom_watson Tom, this is an outrageous and untrue allegation
(4;12 pm)
I'm sorry @Peston but you are being spoonfed stories. The Myler statement creates a crisis at NI. You have form. Stop being a patsy.
(4:17 pm)
@tom_watson That is not worthy of a response

So now we're left with two possibilities. Maybe it was a brain-o after all, of a kind that I've committed many times myself. Or maybe Mr. van Natta or one of his editors buys into the idea that "ACCUSATION does not dignify RESPONSE" is a way to say "ACCUSATION does not deserve RESPONSE".

If it's the latter, is this a change in progress? Or just a low-frequency but stable variant in the lexicographical  meme pool?

[*] Well, um, at least it seems that I myself am losing it, since Geoff Pullum found an excellent Murdoch-scandal connection several days ago: "You don't need no stinkin' passive", 7/18/2011.


  1. Eric P Smith said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 1:01 pm

    If I may make things more complicated, where does ‘deign’ fit in to all this? Standardly we can say “He did not deign to reply.” Less standardly, but commonly, we hear “He did not deign a reply.” Non-standardly, but occasionally, we read “That comment doesn’t deign a reply.” ‘Deign’ is of course cognate with ‘dignify’.

  2. Robert Coren said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

    I think "dignify a reply" is just wrong, but then even several years of Language Log readership has not completely overcome my prescriptionist tendencies. But it annoys me in the same way that a long-running ad for windshield glass on my local sports-radio station annoys me: "Don't trust your family's safety with anyone else", which should be either "Don't trust anyone else with your family's safety" or "Don't entrust your family's safety to anyone else".

  3. Steve Kass said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 1:26 pm

    To me, “dignify” says more here than “deserve” would in its place.

    With “It doesn’t dignify a response,” I understand something like “It deserves at best only an undignified response.”

    What you quote strikes me as a mistake, but (mistake or rare usage) it’s an understandable one, because one can have dignified responses (and undignified ones) to things, and because the raw sequence of words “dignify a reply” is established and natural in English, unlike “cut a knife.”

    As an example of the word sequence (but not the usage you quote), Google Books finds this, from the 19th century, in “Modern Miller, Volume 24.”

    If we knew how to dignify a reply to that attack, which was wholly animated by jealousy of this journal, we would be glad to do so, because it is not the intention of the editor of this paper to descend to the harsh terms that are constantly puncturing the spasms of rhetoric displayed by our selfish and belligerent contemporary.

    [(myl) In web-scanning for this post, I noticed a fair number of examples of "PERSON dignify REPLY to ACCUSATION", including that one. I decided to leave them out so as to not to further muddy the waters of an already-complex discussion. But who knows, maybe a fuller discussion of alternative dignify-frames would lead towards enlightenment.]

  4. Rolig said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 2:16 pm

    Aren't all these examples just cases of a kind of short-circuit, where the boilerplate phrase "These accusations do not merit a reply" becomes confused with the equally boilerplate phrase "I will not dignify these accusations with a reply." Perhaps there also a kind of interference from an underlying notion that "it would be undignified of me to reply to such accusations", hence shifting the issue of dignity, or the lack thereof, from the accusations to the replying.

  5. kenny said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 2:57 pm

    I agree with Eric Smith that there is some interference with the word "deign". Basically, I think that people have heard "deign" somewhere around the word "reply", and they have also heard "dignify" in the neighborhood of "reply", and they don't really understand what either of those phrases actually MEAN, which makes it really easy for imprecise usages to arise. And I don't think I'm being prescriptivist here: I really don't think the people saying these things have a clear idea of how exactly the words they are choosing to use mean exactly the idea they have in their heads, or if the idea in their head is clear in the first place (they may just have a general notion of feeling a reply to be below the person in question).

  6. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 5:56 pm

    But is there any evidence that many speakers do associate deign with dignify?

    And what about Watson's line, 'Stop being a patsy'? That seems an odd accusation, which doesn't really fit with the thrust of his argument – that Peston's willingly spinning for NI. Might it be that he's mixed up his AmE slang – patsy for shill?

  7. ENKI-][ said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 9:38 am

    There's another angle that you haven't addressed yet in this thing. The practice of using a fake backstory in order to manipulate people into giving you information (called 'pretexting' by social-engineer types, since it involves establishing a false pretext) has been referred to several times as 'blagging', which is also a very common corruption of 'blogging' on the webotubes.

    There's also the question of whether or not typing in ~5000 four-digit numbers and hoping that you get into a voicemail box constitutes 'hacking', of course.

  8. Neil Tarrant said,

    July 27, 2011 @ 7:16 am

    Is 'not dignify' as a phrase comparable to those words where the negative is common, but the positive rare or absent in modern English? For example 'disgusted' is common, but 'gusted' rare. The phrase 'they did not dignify a reply' struck me as natural usage, whereas 'they dignified a reply' comes across as unusual.

    Hence might it not be the case that people interpret the verb to be to 'not dignify', and to interpret it as an inversion of the verb 'dignify' false? Would this affect your analysis?

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