Squeezed Middles

« previous post | next post »

Like Geoff and Ben, I was puzzled by choice of "squeezed middle" as the OED's WOTY. But I agree with Ben that it's reasonable as well as traditional for dictionaries to include semi-compositional compounds and phrases among their entries. In such cases, a word-combination X Y has a common meaning that's an unpredictable specialization of its compositional meaning, so that you may not be able to figure out what X Y means, even in context, and you're even less likely to be able to guess that X Y is the term that you should use to convey the concept in question.

Thus the French noun remontée can be used to mean "rise" (e.g. of prices), "increase" (e.g. in violent incidents), "ascent" or "trip up" (e.g. of a river or a mountain), "recovery" (e.g. of the economy), etc. The phrase remontée mécanique is a normal NOUN+ADJECTIVE phrase, whose literal meaning is something like "mechanical rise" or "mechanical lift" — but its common meaning is apparently closer to "ski lift". From the compositional meaning of the phrase, you might think that it could be used to mean "elevator" or "escalator", but as far as I know this is unlikely at best.

There are also particular types of ski lift that may be named in French by complex words like téléski or compounds like tire-fesses ("pull-butt"). In all these cases, I know the meaning of the pieces and the general method of combination, and I could probably guess the meaning of combinations in a suitably redundant context. But out-of-context use could be confusing, and without relevant experience I certainly wouldn't know to use these combinations and not, say, ascenseur de ski. And the same sort of thing goes in reverse for the English phrases in the same semantic space, like chair lift, rope tow, J bar, and so on.

As for squeezed middle, there are at least three traditional circumstances in which this word-sequence is used: "squeezed middle children", "squeezed middle limb" (in geology), and, yes, "squeezed middle class". Some examples:

Frank Main, Perfect Parenting & Other Myths, 1986

[…] it is often the squeezed middle who presents problems. Middle children can smell injustice even if it's hermetically sealed with good intentions!

Maxine Marsolini, Blended Families, 2000

C. Lapworth, "The Secret of the Highlands", Geological Magazine 1883:

Herbert Bucksch, Worterbuch Geotechnik, 1998:

W.E.B. Du Bois, Dark Princess: a romance, 1928:

Robert Heilbroner, "The uncomfortable paradise of full employment"Harper's Magazine,  April 1947:

The squeezed middle class (aided by the management class) will encourage anti-labor (really anti-wage) legislation in an effort to preserve its real share of the national income.

Harriet Bradley, Fractured identities: changing patterns of inequality, 1996:

During Bill Clinton's presidency there has been considerable talk of the 'squeezed middle', leading to consideration of tax changes which would benefit middle-class groupings.

There are many other applications of "squeezed middle" as well, with or without an explicit following noun — corsetting, hydrodynamics, earthquakes, whatever. Geoff's point is that the process of phrasal composition creates word-combinations with predictable meanings, which can then be used in indefinitely many particular circumstances. Ben's point is that linguistically-unpredictable cultural history often leads to some of these particular circumstances becoming a more-or-less established part of the phrase's meaning, which a lexicographer is then in duty bound to document.


  1. D.O. said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 6:00 pm

    But Prof. Pullum was famously saddend by his inability to analize on the fly the origins of tiramisu. And made fun of someone not getting the morphological details of biopic. Would you expect him to care for anybody who has the slightest difficulty when there is a white space involved.

    [I very much hope that what we're looking at above is merely a spelling error, and not a confusion between analysis and analizing. —GKP]

  2. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    November 25, 2011 @ 5:19 am

    Allow to point out that Mark's findings show that I am absolutely right. The routine two-word sequence squeezed middle shows in contexts ranging from child-rearing (are you a squeezed middle child?), geology (have you uncovered the squeezed middle limb of a folded strata configuration?), and sociology (do you belong to the squeezed middle class like all the rest of us who are not poverty-stricken riff-raff or corpulent plutocrats?). There is no lexicalization here at all, and no excuse whatever for putting this regularly composed phrase in a dictionary. The choice shows that the people at Oxford Dictionaries have got their heads stuck up their squeezed middles. All the UK newspapers who have commented agree with me. As they should. —GKP

  3. marie-lucie said,

    November 25, 2011 @ 6:29 pm

    The sequence squeezed middle becomes understandable when it is followed by a noun which it modifies, as in GKP's examples above. On its own, it is not, at least outside the UK where it seems to be common, as was mentioned in the previous post. Has GKP consulted non-UK newspapers?

  4. marie-lucie said,

    November 25, 2011 @ 6:31 pm

    Sorry, I mean myl 's examples above.

  5. marie-lucie said,

    November 25, 2011 @ 6:32 pm

    I think I got confused between this post and the previous ones. Please disregard my apology.

  6. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    November 26, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

    On its own, it is not, at least outside the UK where it seems to be common

    Except that, as other UK commenters have testified, and I can support them, it isn't very common in the UK either.

    I think, in any case, the OED is in a bind. The widespread incomprehension that greets the phrase makes it more plausible that it is a lexical item, but less plausible that it is suitable as lexical item of the year.

  7. Bob Lieblich said,

    November 28, 2011 @ 6:32 am

    Somewhat belatedly, and off-topic, but I need to point out that Prof. Pullum has joined the "ranging from"-with-no-following-"to" gang. Or am I just another elderly fogey raging against the latest developments?

    And could this sort of thing be why he disallows comments?

  8. Colin John said,

    November 28, 2011 @ 11:40 am

    OK – I wasn't going to come in on this, but I find myself against Prof. Pullum here (very rare for me). I'm UK resident and native and until about a year ago I would have assumed that 'squeezed middle' was probably related to fashion, in the absence of any other clue. I'm now familiar with it as a phrase with a particular politico-economic primary meaning and I just wonder where my fellow-countrymen have been for the last year or so.
    I can sympathise with the views of non-UK residents if the phrase in its current major British meaning hasn't escaped these shores.

  9. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 4:02 pm

    […] be a word and not a phrase, while Ben Zimmer thought the WOTY need not be a word. Mark Liberman was also puzzled by the OED’s choice, but basically agreed with Mr. Zimmer, and also suggested a separate phrase […]

  10. WOTY 2011: perché io no? « hydrargyrium said,

    December 30, 2011 @ 8:48 am

    […] A quanto pare, ogni anno la Oxford University Press sceglie una Word Of The Year (WOTY, per chi non l'avesse capito) che descriva il clima dell'anno trascorso. Lo stesso fa la American Dialect Society, con più autorità, a quanto pare. C'è anche un carattere cinese dell'anno e un kanji dell'anno. (NB mi limito a indicare qui le mie fonti personali d'informazione, che non sono né complete né super partes; chi desiderasse approfondire lo faccia pure) La prima, il terzo e il quarto sono già stati scelti (e qualcuno ha avuto da ridire), mentre la seconda a quanto pare sta creando attesa. L'idea a quanto ho capito si ispira ai People Of The Year della rivista Time; si tratta di scegliere una parola (o simili) che sia entrata in uso nell'arco dell'anno trascorso e che ne sia rappresentativa. Ciò mi diverte moltissimo (e quando mai non mi approfitto di una cosa del genere?), quindi ho deciso di scegliere anch'io la mia “parola dell'anno” per il 2011. Anzi, le mie parole dell'anno. Almeno una prima e una seconda classificata. […]

RSS feed for comments on this post