Becoming an adjective

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A friend points out to me that according to this Abe Books description of a hardback copy of Jane Jacobs' classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, on the back cover it is reported that Toronto Life made the following assertion:

Jane Jacobs has become more than a person. She is an adjective.

If you care to read on, I will do my best to explain the meaning of this comment.

Now that you have decided to read on, I must admit to being somewhat sorry, because even after much head-scratching, I have absolutely no idea what the blurb-writer could have meant, so I feel I am letting you down.

I pointed out in 2013, in my Lingua Franca post "Being an Adjective," that adjectives are generally defined as words that modify or qualify nouns; the more careless books say that an adjective "describes a noun" (wrong because of course the description is of the referent, not the word).

I found one particular wacky grammar site that said adjectives are "gossipy": they "are always telling you things about other words" and you "can only hope that it's truthful stuff" that they tell you. Complete twaddle: a perfect example of the way grammar attracts writers who have absolutely no idea what they are trying to say but the eagerly say it anyway.

Neither that nor any other of the useless characterizations of adjectives give us any clue as to the sense in which Jane Jacobs "has become an adjective." Judging from what Google can find, nobody has ever said "she is an adjective" in any context on the web.

Jacobs' book was published in 1961. The Toronto Life blurb on its cover may have been digitized somewhere, but it may not. I certainly haven't found it, so I have no wider context or explanatory remarks.

I am inclined to put the blurb down as one more indication that when the topic is language, people don't seem to think any standards of veracity will be applied. They tend to make stuff up, assert wild falsehoods, linguify for no reason, and generally act as if talking about language is a domain of activity in which no one will ever call you on anything or expect you to tell the truth or demand that you make any rational sense.

Two correspondents (thank you, JM and GWY) have suggested to me that the claim must be intended to mean that Jacobs is so singular and influential that she can now be regarded as providing the core of a definition of a specific quality to which others might aspire. We do have genuine adjectives like this: Shakespearean, Kafkaesque, etc., and they denote the properties of being naturally associable with the authors themselves. Maybe the unknown blurbist was trying to say that one could call something Jacobsian to imply that it have (at least some of) the significant properties associated with that uniquely great and famous writer on American city planning. Though even as I struggle to write this I find it getting vaguer and vaguer under my fingers.

And even if this sort-of somehow works, notice that the existence of the adjective Shakespearean doesn't make William Shakespeare an adjective! There's a double confusion there: the adjective confused with the property, and the property confused with the person. I do not back off from my opinion that everyday talk about grammar is disastrously muddled.


Update: There is evidence that by 2015 there really was an adjective Jacobsian; it occurs in the title of this paper:

Stefano Cozzolino (2015) "Insights and reflections on Jane Jacobs' legacy. Toward a Jacobsian theory of the city", Territorio 72: 151–58.

But I do not know how long ago the adjective was coined, or whether the adjective predates the unknown blurbist.



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