People of X

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In the discussion of Boris Johnson's misperceived phrase ("Was it 'people of colour' or 'people of talent'?", 12/6/2019), several people expressed the opinion that "people of talent" is an unexpected way to refer to the group that he wants to welcome. Thus Rose Eneri:

My question is why does Mr. Johnson use such as odd phrase. Why does he not say, "talented people" or "people with skills we need?" I don't know of any other use of the phrase, "people of…" This fracas demonstrates the perils of using one.

Actually there are quite a few other possible values for X in "people of X", where the phrase means something like "people who have X": faith, goodwill, conscience, influence,  integrity, character, means, authority, importance, intelligence, vision, quality, . . .

And Johnson has used the "people of talent" phrase before, in the same immigration-related context. See "Johnson's japes fail to mask immigration concerns", Newsroom NZ 7/25/2017:

The traditional OE to the UK has come under threat in recent years, with the government cutting visas for skilled migrants and introducing new income rules. Would-be emigrants have also complained about delays in processing their visas, leading to cancelled flights and lost money.

In his former life as Mayor of London, Johnson expressed enthusiasm for the concept of a "bilateral mobility zone", allowing New Zealanders and Australians to more easily live and work in the UK.

He shared similar sentiments on Monday, telling media: "I don't want to overpromise at this stage, but clearly it's our ambition to continue to attract people of talent and we want to have a regime for New Zealand that is as free and open as we can possibly make it."

Shifting from politics to linguistics, an obvious question is whether there is one "NOUNS of X" construction or several. I listed examples where the meaning is something like "NOUNS who have X" — but what about cases like "people of action", "people of Labrador", "people of antiquity"? And also cases with a singular head: "man of God", "god of war", "time of day" — as well as many other NP PP patterns that may or may not be interpreted by the same principles.

This reminds me of the problem of English noun compounds, where a similarly simple structure corresponds to a similarly broad range of semantic interpretations. Consider olive oil vs. hair oil, or toll road vs. dirt road, or oatmeal cookies vs. Christmas cookies. Some people have tried to construct a taxonomy of such interpretations, but

As several writers have noted — e.g.; Dowty {1979) — the facts are consistent with a linguistic rule of argument-argument compounding that contributes only a vague 'connected-with' predicate, the more specific meanings arising from lexicalization and from the usual contextual circumscription of linguistically vague expressions. [Liberman & Sproat 1991, p. 142].

At this point, of course, our friends in the "parallel distributed processing" tradition, and their "deep learning" descendants, will chide us for believing in a bright line between rules and analogies.



13 Comments

  1. unekdoud said,

    December 8, 2019 @ 6:13 am

    Not quite the same construction, but I know someone with "people experiencing homelessness" as a pet peeve.

  2. Vicki said,

    December 8, 2019 @ 8:43 am

    Some of those "people of X" phrasings stick around because they don't quite if turned around: "people of talent" feels like a slightly long-winded way of saying "talented people," but "people of conscience" means something different from "conscientious people," and "people of faith" means something like "believers," where "faithful people" suggests loyalty or reliability, not primarily religious.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 8, 2019 @ 9:00 am

    And in the U.S. context at least, "people of color" means something different ("means" in terms of the scope of referent, not just in terms of having a different vibe in terms of being viewed as neither an archaism nor a slur) than "colored people."

    More relevantly though I think is the vogue that first arose several decades ago in various activist circles for https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/People-first_language. There has subsequently been some backlash against it in some of the same activist circles and imho all sides in these disputes are typically working from various pop-Whorfian premises that may not have been examined critically enough. Obviously examples like "people of Labrador" or "of antiquity" do not seem to be the result of that political vogue.

  4. Kevin McNulty said,

    December 8, 2019 @ 10:34 am

    It implies not only that the relevant "people" share a common quality, like being under 6 feet tall, but that they are, or should be tied together in some way. It can be used rhetorically (or in optimistic/precatory fashion) to suggest the existence of an invisible community: people of good will, people of faith.

  5. Ray said,

    December 8, 2019 @ 11:32 am

    and then there's 'people of earth'.

    people of X covers a lot of ground. but I think the through line has to do with expressing types of people with an inevitable, inherent, inherited quality — ie, not by choice.

  6. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 8, 2019 @ 11:59 am

    where the phrase means something like "people who have X"

    If we take "something like" to include "people who demonstrate or exemplify X", then "people of action" fits comfortably in that category, but I'm not sure "people of color" does. "People of color" seems to me to have more in common with "people of Labrador" than with "people of conscience".

  7. BZ said,

    December 9, 2019 @ 12:57 pm

    If we take "people of color" to mean "people who have color", it only makes sense that white is the absence of color. This may sound racially insensitive, but is not unintuitive, if you think of painting in color on a blank white sheet of paper. Of course from a scientific perspective, black is the absence of color (or really light), while white contains light of all possible colors.

    The problem, of course, is that "black" and "white" when applied to skin color are not really accurate color descriptions, meaning something more like "dark" and "light". Not to mention that "noun of color" to mean "noun that has color" is not really a productive phrase, outside the skin color usage. I sometimes wonder why this phrase arose at all given that "colored people" is considered offensive.

    As for "people of talent" that just sounds wrong to me.

  8. DaveK said,

    December 9, 2019 @ 7:31 pm

    And then there was that gangster movie from the '90s Men of Respect, i.e. respected men, where I suppose the title used the construction just to be a little startling and memorable.

  9. JPL said,

    December 9, 2019 @ 8:13 pm

    I have the feeling that your question ("Is there one NOUNS of X construction or several") is part of a much bigger problem area involving the meanings of 'of' and other N-N relations traditionally discussed under the heading of "genitive case". We would like to have more data, but for a start here is a tentative observation, by no means fully worked out, which anybody can argue with.

    For at least the main cases you present the phrase ("n OF A") seems to express reference to an individual or a plurality of individuals (n) identified in terms of a property that defines a category (A) that includes them. This category may not have a nominal form that normally expresses it, but rather resembles categories with adjectival function (expressing properties relevant to subcategories). The logical relation expressed by the [n OF A] construction is that of inclusion, which is a fundamental relation when dealing with categories. ("A includes n", or inversely, "n belong(s) to A".) These expressions indicate or evoke a category, as with generic expressions, and unlike descriptive expressions such as "back of the chair", where the NP object of OF refers to an object rather than a category, but the expression still retains the "inclusion" relation. (I don't think expressions such as "god of war" or "master of ceremonies" would be included in the above analysis, or maybe they would.)

    If I'm not mistaken, the N-N constructions you mention are analysed traditionally as exemplifying a "classifier" function in the structure of modification in the NP.

  10. Leo said,

    December 11, 2019 @ 4:28 am

    Maybe Johnson originally adopted "people of talent" in deliberate mockery of person-first language. He is fond of linguistic jokes, and has a supercilious, "punching-down" style of humour that emphasises in-group/out-group divisions.

  11. Chandra said,

    December 11, 2019 @ 1:44 pm

    The only construction I've seen that's pragmatically similar to "people of colour" is the term "people of size" used in the body positivity movement. There's also "people with disabilities" which is slightly different in form but similar in usage.

    I've long wondered whether constructions of this sort, in addition to emphasizing the personhood over the attribute, come about because they have more words and more syllables, and are thus harder for antagonists to spit out in a dismissive or contemptuous manner. It's like a paralinguistic way of signalling "your identity is important to me so I'm going to use a more complex, formal structure to reflect that".

  12. RP said,

    December 11, 2019 @ 6:04 pm

    "People of talent" sounds absolutely fine to me, and I'm no fan of Johnson, quite the reverse.

    "People of colour" is an expression that sounded very odd to most BrE speakers a few years ago (and may still sound odd to some, especially older BrE speakers) but is quite well known now in BrE, although not as widespread as it is in US English.

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    December 12, 2019 @ 10:24 am

    RP — I am one of the set of "older BrE speakers" of whom you speak, and I agree that "people of colour" jars sounds odd (and artificial) to me, whereas "coloured people" sounds and feels perfectly natural; but I cannot agree that "people of talent" sounds fine — for me. the most natural idiom after "talented people" would be "people with talent", not "of".

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