Friday, August 22, 2008

Wonderings and Googlings (Wherein I wonder about words, then I Google them)

Here are some sample hits from a search for the word atrocious.
The atrocious sequel to Are We There Yet?

We've been keeping tabs on the Associated Press's atrocious campaign
coverage this year.

$100 million private-equity buyout boosts (are) atrocious

Do you remember the atrocious and disappointing OECD report on

And here are some sample hits for this adjective's noun form, atrocity(ies).
Conditions of atrocity: The crimes at Abu Ghraib are a direct expression of
the kind of war we are waging in Iraq.

In the first months after 9/11, the administration's ruthless exploitation
of the atrocity was a choice, not a necessity.

All varieties of atrocity: battle deaths, civilian casualties of war,
democide, famine caused by the economic disruption.

Other hits for atrocity/atrocities referenced Nuremberg, the Nanjing Massacre, and "Bosnian Muslim atrocities in Srebrenica."

Okay, so now that I've thoroughly bummed you out, I hope you don't mind me pondering the question: How did these two words -- really the same word as different parts of speech -- come to have such very different connotations?

Atrocity, it seems, is used to mean slaughter and bloodshed and torture, while atrocious is often used to ridicule bad sitcoms, bad hair days, and other non-brutal bad choices.

Why? I don't know. But I have a theory. It's a conspiracy theory pointing to a 6-foot-tall English-speaking mouse. A tyrant whose atrocities include forcing innocent children to wear plastic ears and those "Escape from Witch Mountain" movies of the '70s.

My evidence: "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious. ..."

Yes, methinks mesmells Mickey brand sanitizer.

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Joel said...

I don't claim to have even done minimal research on this or to have any kind of evidence, but my gut response is that the adjective is always going to be used more broadly and loosely than the nominal form. Indeed, just think of the other words and ideas that surround these different parts of speech. An adjective is a qualifier. A noun is the thing itself. An adjective is almost fundamentally figurative. It's an abstracted quality that's meant to imply a particular aspect of a thing. An adjective spins, but a noun is the thing being spun. I can't help equating nouning with the sacred act of naming. Somehow--at least in an ideal sense--a noun captures the essence and pith of a thing. Whereas adjectives bring color and texture to a thing already named.

I don't mean to be drawing a hard line (or, in any case, a hard line I'm not willing to fragrantly violate), but if I had to tease out the categorical differences between the two parts of speech, that's the way that I'm intuitively inclined to do it.

Hmmm, this makes me think of Plato and the forms (and maybe that idea becomes a prejudice that is reflected here). There's a difference between being beautiful and being Beauty itself, between true and the Truth, between godly and God herself.

And somehow it's an easier thing to hyperbolize with an adjective and a far bolder thing to push out the metaphor and imply the identity.

Anyway, just a thought, just riffin'.

I don't mind blaming it on ol' Mouse Ears. I'm a Goofy fan myself. Goofy--and I think Roger Rabbit might have said this (though I hasten to add that I was cemented in this conviction before that movie)--is a comic genius. Ears is just a front man, the commercial side of the enterprise--indeed, I guess that's the point: Mick is the enterprise; Goofy, on the other hand, is the starving artist whom the enterprise exploits. Huh, whom the enterprise treats like a dog. Not to get into the whole Pluto-Goofy bit.

June Casagrande said...

Interesting. So nouns are like the buildings while adjectives are like the aluminum siding.

I don't know, either, but I'd bet there's some truth to that (the way you put it, not the way I put it).

I never saw all of Roger Rabbit. Just the first 15 minutes or so on TV. But, as a Simpsons junkie, I can certainly appreciate some of the legacy of an animation pioneer. On the other hand, I do love having giant figureheads to critize for all the world's woes. Guys and rodents so big I can be forgiven for forgetting balance.

Plus, look at his taste in women -- all false eyelashes and impossible pumps and demeaning hair bows.

It squeaks volumes.

: )


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