Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 30, 2017

Feeling Whippier

One of the most powerful things about the English language is our ability to generate new words in many forms. We can turn a noun into a verb (not always gracefully), an adjective, an adverb, and so forth. Speakers of many other languages frown on this freewheeling approach of ours. English is messy. I’m certain that Hungarians and Lithuanians marvel that we can understand one another at all without a dozen or more clearly defined noun cases.

Take, for example, one of the first words many of us learn to speak, spell and write: cat. I remember learning to print “CAT” in kindergarten. Somewhere in a box at my dad’s place may be the sheet of paper on which young blaknissan drew a small circle, a large circle, gave the small circle two triangles for ears, two dots for eyes and gave the large circle four descending lines for legs and laboriously and not very neatly printed C A T with a big black crayon. (Perhaps there were whiskers; I was a precocious child.)

It could’ve gone either way at that point; I might’ve followed my nascent artistic genius, but, instead, I became a writer. To prove the wisdom of my choice, I can still spell cat with the best of them, while my drawing hasn’t advanced all that much.

Language is transformative. We make new words from existing words, sometimes with blithe abandon. English speakers have a long history of coining new words from old, and there’s something about the language that’s quite accepting about wrenching nouns into other forms of speech. We not only have the noun, cat, we can cat around, we can be catty and we can behave cattily. Interestingly, we also have doggy as an adjective, but use a different form for the adverbial sense: doggedly. There’s a reason for that, but I’ll go on.

I was thinking of this yesterday when, after a busy couple of days and being beaten down by a cold, I said that I was whipped. That’s a common English convention known as a participial adjective. “Whipped” is a past participle, and, interestingly, past participial adjectives are most often used to describe how someone feels: bored, frightened and interested are examples. The present participle, on the other hand — boring, frightening and interesting — generally describes the causes of feelings described by past participial adjectives.

There are a few participial adjectives that don’t end in -er or -ing, like “misunderstood” and “unknown.”

The reason I dusted off this ancient bit of grammar is that I started imagining the comparative state of being whipped. If my cold lingers and I feel worse tomorrow than today, I could say I’m whippier.

Except I can’t. It’s not done. We generally form comparatives of participial adjectives using “more, less, very” and other adverbs of degree. Several languages work that way.

Therefore, I must say I’m concerned about feeling more whipped tomorrow, not whippier. Likewise with more boring, more frightening; not boringer, frighteninger, etc.

Language is so powerful and so adaptable that you almost certainly knew what I meant by “whippier,” even if it’s not a valid English word.

This is an aspect of language that fascinates me. No one (so far as I remember) instructed me on the proper formation and use of participial adjectives. I doubt that I’ve ever said anything was boringer or interestinger, except in fun. We simply know these things. It’s inherent in our present-day English, which has evolved from an earlier version with many more structural rules than we have now. We’ve shed most of the original noun cases, genders and a significant number of historic verbal constructs.

Everyone learns their native language by imitation, hearing it spoken, then reading and writing. We learn grammar at the same time we’re acquiring a massive amount of vocabulary. Ensconced within our contemporary language are all those earlier rules and conventions that still have power to influence how we use the language, so deeply ingrained that they simply operate without our “knowing” the rules.

It’s no wonder that a common complaint of bored students in boring English class is, “I already know how to speak English.”

Taking a few moments to consider the power of language has brightened my day, and made me feel considerably unwhippier.

© Brad Nixon 2017

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Responses

  1. Uou are unwhippier. Is the cat unwhiskier?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Whiskerless, unwhiskered … the human mind is inventive enough to come up with previously unrecorded words and perceptive enough to figure them out. That’s the fun, although it’s outside the rules. Thanks.

      Like

  2. Anyone with a friend for whom English is a second language no doubt has bumped up against a lot of amusing constructions. Of course, the same could be said about spending time on social media. In that world, amusing constructions abound.

    Reading posts like this is a double-edged sword for me. While I enjoy language, and enjoy learning about it, I don’t think about most of these things when I’m writing. If I do, I sometimes end up like the caterpillar who started trying to decide which foot should go next. I’m on my back, in the ditch, not going anywhere.

    You’re right that much which seems instinctual actually was learned at a very early age, and then reinforced in classrooms. (Do they diagram sentences any more?) But it’s fun to have my memory jogged, and fun to consider the words we use.

    As for whippier? I’ve heard it used once in a context where it seemed to fit: among some alligator hunters who were after a long-time resident of their swamp. According to them, he was easy to spot, because he was the one with the whippier tail.

    Like

    • Darn, I don’t get credit for whippier. I wrote about diagramming some time ago, and only a few people were familiar with it. My former colleagues in the UK and Australia had never been subjected to it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, we thought it was wonderful fun, especially when we used different colors of chalk for different parts of a sentence. Yessir, I’m of the generation that learned the Palmer Method of penmanship and thought being chosen to go outdoors and clean the erasers was the best thing in the world.

        Happy New Year!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I hesitate to give your comment a “like,” although I appreciate it. I’m loath to admit to having vied for the doinky privilege of going out onto the fire escape to to clean the erasers. However, I’ll give you a “like” for penmanship, since my own cursive style never merited the 1950s/60s version of a like: a star or “VG.”

        Like


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