An irreverence for power

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I was just reading a year-old article in the NYT reporting on Molly Ivins's death, and in discussing her friendship with Ann Richards, they said, "The two shared an irreverence for power and a love of the Texas wilds."

I was surprised that Katherine Q. Seelye could say that, and that the copy-editors didn't mind. I hadn't ever noticed this phenomenon before, but others must have. So while "a reverence for power" is fine, for me "an irreverence for power" is ungrammatical, though cute, and certainly understandable, and maybe it was intentionally tongue in cheek — after all, they had just been discussing the slogan "Molly Ivins can't say that, can she?", which her editors had put on billboards to defend her and which became the title of one of her books.

Similarly, I can say "a passion for politics", but I can't say "a dispassion for politics".

Well, I should check Google. … Hmm, supportive, to some extent, but not conclusive.

— "a reverence for" – 185,000, vs. "an irreverence for" – 1600, about a 100-to-1 difference. But just plain "reverence" vs "irreverence" gets 8,990,000 vs. 825, 000, about a 10-to-1 difference. So "an irreverence for" is indeed much rarer, but not as impossible for everyone as I had thought it was for me.

— Bigger difference for "a passion for" (7,050,000) vs. "a dispassion for" (203) — I guess I can say "a dispassion for" is ungrammatical.

— A smaller difference for "a taste for" vs. "a distaste for" — about 10 to 1 — and for me, "a distaste for" is fine, actually.

— I also checked out "(a) respect for" vs. "(a) disrespect for", and got about a 20 to 40 -to-1 difference, and for just the words "respect" vs. "disrespect" I got an 80-to-1 difference, even bigger, so adding "for" is not at all worse for "disrespect" than for "respect". On the contrary, adding "for" brings the numbers for "disrespect" closer to those for "respect".

So I don't know what to think — I thought I was discovering that a negative prefix removes the valency of the noun, but although there seems to be an effect in that direction in some cases, it's not general. And I don't know offhand what to Google on to try to see if there's been any study of such a phenomenon. Let me take a wild shot and Google "preservation of lexical valency under prefixation", or maybe with "subcategorization" instead of "valency", and maybe I don't want the quotation marks.

Hmm, no luck. There's work on inheritance of valence, valency, subcategorization, especially in computational linguistic work on the lexicon, but I didn't find anything that seemed to be about noun valency inheritance under prefixation (not too surprising if there isn't any work on this, since noun valency is certainly more marginal than valency of verbs or even adjectives, and these latinate negative prefixes are not productive, so the whole phenomenon may be quite marginal and idiosyncratic.) Maybe it's not even interesting, or at least not Interesting (I use capitalization to indicate the loaded sense of "interesting" that I absorbed, sort of reluctantly, from Chomsky when I was a graduate student.)


  1. Nathan Myers said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 12:59 am

    Would Prof. Partee propose, instead, "toward"?

    Maybe we can assign an activity quotient to each negative. "Dispassion" is utterly flaccid. "Irreverence" is pretty lively. "Intransigence" strains at the traces.

  2. Tim said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 2:08 am

    It occurs to me that, at least in some of these examples, the prefix denotes more a "lack of" than an "opposite of". I wonder if the reason you can't have, for example, a dispassion for something is that dispassion is interpreted as merely the absence of passion. Therefore, it is not a thing which you can have one of. Perhaps "distaste for" works because it is interpreted not simply as an absence of a taste, but an active aversion.

    Interesting, though, that the opposite situation exists with "like" and "dislike". It would sound normal to me to say that one has a dislike for something, but not to say "I have a like for that". "Liking", maybe…

  3. Faldone said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 6:57 am

    I'd say you're being too picky. The phrase 'an irreverence for power' works precisely because of its play off of 'a reverence for power'. Any change just takes it farther from that play.

  4. Chris said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 8:56 am

    re Nathan Myers: And Molly Ivins's irreverence was a pretty active quality.

    I don't see anything wrong with "irreverence for power", and my only qualm about "dispassion for X" would be the semantics as Tim pointed out – but it might work as a play on words, or in context.

    Analogous constructions with other prepositions seem to work fine: the invalidity of Payack's word counter is clear, zebras are unsuited to domestication, etc.

  5. JimG said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 9:30 am

    I had no problem with 'irreverence for power.'

    I'm one of the first to complain (or at least to subvocalize the complaint) when someone writes or speaks awkwardly, in unprescribed fashion. I strongly support the idea that words have intrinsic meanings.

    However, the best writers are those who use language, nay, words, in interesting and useful ways. New or unfamiliar vocabulary makes tasty reading, as does the use of words in extraordinary ways. The test for success in such usages is whether or not the reader understands exactly what the writer intended, as will other readers, without requiring the accrued weight of repeated (ab)use to bend or add to the meaning of the words.
    Lead us not into prescriptivism, as Ralph W Emerson might have written.

  6. Martyn Cornell said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 9:48 am

    … and forgive those that prescriptivise against us?

  7. Richard Sabey said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 9:53 am

    @Faldone: Do you mean the construction "reverence for N" in general, or "a reverence for power" in particular? There are a mere 899 Google hits for "reverence for power", but 88,600 for "reverence for nature", and 98,900 for "reverence for life" (that being a translation of Albert Schweitzer's phrase "Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben").

  8. Faldone said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 11:07 am

    I suppose I mean both, but 'power' specifically. The concept of 'reverence for power' works as an example of the general "reverence for N.' 'Reverence for' gets 2,120,000 ghits. Molly Ivins was certainly known for her irreverence. It's like Amy Goodman's claim to be "the exception to the rulers."

  9. William F Dowling said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 11:15 am

    Faldone: You say "The phrase 'an irreverence for power' works precisely because of its play off of 'a reverence for power'." Maybe. The question is, Why is it a play? Why does it have to 'work' or not? And I'm not really convinced that 'a reverence for power' is the sort of frozen expression that is normally the basis for word play.

  10. kip said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 11:29 am

    Of the examples you cited, the first one that seemed odd to my ear was "a disrespect for". In fact, before I read that one, I was struggling to find out what you could find ungrammatical about "an irreverence for power".

  11. Faldone said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 11:36 am

    I would say that 'reverence for N' is enough of a stock phrase and usually considered a good thing. I'd guess that the most common use is 'reverence for life,' at 120,000 ghits, beating out even 'reverence for God,' which comes in at 85,500. 'Reverence for power' fits the mold in everything except its lack of goodness. This makes 'irreverence for power' all the more effective even though 'reverence for power' is relatively rare.

  12. Sili said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

    Isn't there an systematic fault in your searches? It strikes me that it would make more sense to compare "an irreverence for" to "no reverence for" and so on.

    Am I the only one to use "despect" as an antonym of "respect"? I think I've picked it up from Danish, but it may be something I've dreamed up myself then …

  13. Bryn LaFollette said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

    I didn't have any problem with "an irreverence for power" and it actually took some adjustment of my internal semantic parser to try to get a reading that would at least be odd. "A dispassion for N" does strike me as being slightly more of a play on words, though. I personally don't find these prefixes to be acting as any sort of negative polarity item affecting valency or arthrousness or anything. Further, as for the statistical counts from Google, wouldn't we expect to get systematically smaller counts for the terms with negative prefixes since these are marked constructions? I don't know what the Corpus statistics are for marked versus unmarked words, but I would expect the latter would be more widely represented just according to the formal conception of "marked" features.

    @Sili – Speaking as a native English speaker, I don't believe "despect" exists as a standard word of the language. "Disrespect" is the only antonym to "respect", from which the widely used colloquial verb "to dis" derives.

  14. Sili said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 6:32 pm


    I'm glad to at least discover that it's at least a proper Danish word (from Latin).

  15. Barbara Partee said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 8:57 pm

    I didn't mean to suggest anything prescriptive — I was just noting my initial reactions and my surprise, since I had never been aware of such differences between such pairs of words before. I suspect that Nathan Myers and Tim are on the right track, and there are interesting lexical differences among these words, with something like degree of 'activeness' quite relevant. It's probably relevant that you can have an active dislike (for something), but you can't very well have an active dispassion, since that's indeed an absence of passion and nothing like a negative passion. And I suppose you can have an active disrespect (for something or someone). I wonder whether those for whom "an irreverence for …" sounds perfectly normal also tend to see irreverence as more active than those for whom it doesn't, but I have no idea how to test that.
    Thanks for all the comments. And I'd welcome suggestions about how I could have made it clearer that I didn't have anything at all prescriptivist in mind.

  16. Troy S. said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 9:42 pm

    There seems to be a class of adjectives that generally only appear in their negative forms. When was the last time you heard of someone acting "pudently", say, as opposed to impudently? Someone out there must know of a list of such words. I dimly remember reading a poem somewhere filled with unusual positive forms, but can't find anything like it.

  17. Faldone said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 10:24 pm

    Despect does have an entry in my brick and mortar OED (the four pages per page shrunk version of the original umpteen volume set) with two citations, both from the mid 15th century. Nowadays we don't tend to analyze respect as re- + spect any more than we analyze reverence as re- + verence.

    I finally read the original NYT article and the 'irreverence for power' line doesn't flow easily with the rest of the article to my ear but I believe it fits well with the spirit of Mollie Ivins.

  18. dr pepper said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 11:02 pm

    I'm sorry to hear she's gone. I had a strong version to her commentary.

  19. Doug B said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 12:49 am

    I was pleased to see the useful follow-up to 'a reverence for' vs. 'an irreverence for' ('reverence' vs. 'irreverence'), and so was puzzled by the following omission for 'passion' vs. 'dispassion'. The baseline difference here (167,000,000 vs. 143,000) is comparable to the previous one (i.e. one order of magnitude smaller than the more specific comparison), and so I don't follow the 'I guess I can say "a dispassion for" is ungrammatical.'

  20. Richard Sabey said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 4:02 am

    @Troy S. Are you thinking of this poem?

    Several of the poet's neologisms aren't formed by removing negative prefixes, though. "Inchoate", for example, comes from the Latin "inchoare", to begin.

  21. Barbara Partee said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

    @ Doug B. You're right. I was too hasty and lazy. When I saw that 'passion for' vs. 'dispassion for' got 7 million vs. 203, I just thought 203 was virtually zero and didn't bother to check those expressions without the 'for'. But you're right that a difference of 30,000 to 1 for the expression with 'for' is just one order of magnitude more than the difference of 1000 to one for the expressions without 'for', so I stand corrected! We're just way more interested in passion than in dispassion, looks like!

  22. Troy S. said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

    @Richard: why yes, that's just the one; thank you. And inchoate has a surprising agricultural etymology in + cohum (an ox-hitch), with the sense of "ready to start plowing".

  23. Franz Bebop said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 9:55 am

    Maybe the most common valence of "reverence" is not also the most common valence of "irreverence." Ordinarily when one talks of "reverence," one has in mind reverence towards something specific, rather than a generalized feeling of reverence towards anything. But it's the other way around in the case of irreverence: normally it refers to a generalized, nonspecific kind of irreverence. "Irreverence for power" is not wrong, per se, but it's just a lot less common than a generalized attitude of irreverence.

    I agree with Tim and Nathan, perhaps this is also because the positive "reverence" indicates an emotion, while the prefixed antonym "irreverence" refers to the lack of that emotion, rather than the opposing emotion.

  24. Morriss Partee said,

    March 22, 2010 @ 12:22 pm

    Oh! I like Barbara's use of "what to Google on" in this post.

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