Thursday, 11 August 2011

O fat white woman ... or white fat woman?

Yahoo! Answers ain't Notes & Queries - but it often turns up interesting topics, and one a couple of days ago involved adjective order: when you have a string of adjectives before a noun, what order do they go in? For instance, in Frances Cornford's ...

O fat white woman whom nobody loves

... why is it not "white fat woman"?

As a native English speaker, I'd never given adjective order much thought. I don't recall ever being explicitly taught any rule - though we were taught it was bad style to string too many adjectives together - yet some adjective orders "feel" better than others, which suggests that whatever fuzzy rule exists I probably acquired unconsciously during early language learning. For ESL learners, however, it's not so straightforward. This does somewhat impinge on one of my language peeves, as if you try to find guidance on adjective order, especially on ESL teaching sites, you find this is an example - like the previously mentioned extreme adjectives and choice of comparative form - where you find statements of rigid rules that don't actually reflect real native usage. In the case of adjective order, the usual format of rule stated is:

opinion > dimension > age > shape > colour > origin > material
(from Kenneth Beare, esl.about.com Adjective Placement)

... and some extend it further, as in:

Determiner or article
Opinion adjective
Size, including adjectives, comparatives and superlatives
Shape
Age
Colour
Nationality
Religion
Material
Noun used as adjective
(from Adjective order, Centre for Independent Language Learning, Hong Kong)

The better web sources admit that there's some flexibility. For example, if words are semantically bound, the order may alter: because "a red German car" fits the scheme, but "a German red wine" is idiomatic because "red wine" is a semantic entity. But from a skim of the top Google hits for "adjective order", surprisingly few examine this possibility. The reality is that no definite algorithm exists, and I was quite pleased to find a book discussion of this that matches my opinion that any underlying ruleset that may exist isn't consciously learned.

In fact, there are discernible patterns to adjective order, even though it would be misleading to think in terms of a rigid order. In this sense, this issue illustrates many of the points I made in my introductory chapter. There, I suggested that many of the so-called "rules" of grammar are better understood as descriptions of patterns or regularities that are found in the language of competent speakers. It is also worth noting that the appropriate order of adjectives is something that native speakers seem to know intuitively, (ie, it is part of the procedural knowledge that they have built up over a lifetime). It is not something they consciously learn. Most native speakers could not offer a declarative explanation of the sort we are about to consider.
- page 96, Linguistic Perspectives on English Grammar: a Guide for EFL Teachers, Martin J. Endley, 2010.

Linguistically, adjective order is interesting because native speakers have a strong and generally agreed sense of what order is idiomatic (unlike the situation with comparatives, where speakers strongly disagree, often having been taught explicitly to believe some forms to be correct/incorrect); and a lot of linguistic research has gone into trying to work out what factors drive that order. There's an extended summary here:

In most publications that discuss adjective order, the semantics of the adjectives is presented as the main factor determining their ordering, although phonological and pragmatic factors (like euphony, idiomacy and emphasis) are generally thought to have some influence as well.1 The publications do not agree, however, on the nature of the semantic factor that is responsible for the order of the adjectives.
- pages 94-97, The Noun Phrase in Ancient Greek, St├ęphanie J. Bakker, 2009.

The upshot of all this, anyway, is that "fat" (with its multiple connotations of opinion, dimension and shape) has several factors that give it priority over colour ("white").

However, not all such cases are clear. You can show with Google Books that different orders often coexist, and would be outright wrong to to teach that one or other is incorrect for not fitting the rule. Forms particularly seem to coexist when the adjectives all have similar semantics.  For example, in these the negative judgement implicit seems far more powerful than the actual quality described:

"a fat old man" 4190 hits / "an old fat man" 1390 hits
"stupid fat ugly" 70 hits / "stupid ugly fat" 94 hits / "fat stupid ugly" 292 hits / "fat ugly stupid" 263 hits / "ugly stupid fat" 17 hits / "ugly fat stupid" 31 hits


Frances Cornford's poem - in which the poet criticises the subject for being unsensuous - runs in full:

To a Fat Lady Seen From the Train

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
     Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
     And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
     Missing so much and so much?

The format - a triolet - being rather easy to emulate, it has attracted various responses, including this rather nice riposte from GK Chesterton:

The Fat White Woman Speaks

Why do you rush through the field in trains,
Guessing so much and so much?
Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
Fat-head poet that nobody reads;
And why do you know such a frightful lot
About people in gloves as such?
And how the devil can you be sure,
Guessing so much and so much,
How do you know but what someone who loves
Always to see me in nice white gloves
At the end of the field you are rushing by,
Is waiting for his Old Dutch?

Chesterton's sentiment was shared by at least one other reader; the 1996 Enitharmon Press anthology Frances Cornford: Selected Poems mentions how Cornford received an anonymous postcard, dated May 1910 and signed 'The FWW', with the following riposte:


How do you know what I lose or gain?
And what do you know of love?
O pert brown miss in the railway train
How do you know what I lose or gain?
Do five rich publicans languish in vain
Longing to kiss your glove?
How do you know what I lose or gain,
And what do you know of love?

O Fat White Woman was also parodied by AE Housman in a 1910 letter to his friend William Rothenstein:

O why do you walk through the fields in boots,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody shoots,
Why do you walk through the fields in boots,
When the grass is soft as the breast of coots
And shivering-sweet to the touch?

I guess it depends on your view of Housman whether you view it just as a mean throwaway joke or, as argued on page 88 of The Road of Danger, Guilt, and Shame: the Lonely Way of A.E. Housman, Housman's characteristic use of parody to debunk and reject sentimentalized emotion in poetry.

There were other excellent parodies and homages in The Spectator in 1973 as part of its ongoing writing competition series (a competition that has produced some fine poets and humorists such as the great Eric Oakley Parrott). You'll have to find an archival library copy or hack them out of the Google Books Snippet View if you're interested. Here's one:

I'm fat 'cos I'm preggers. Miss Cornford. my dear,
And I'm missing so much, and so much,
For this is my fifth and the dread day draws near,
O, I feel I could drop at a touch!

My gloves are thick chamois (industrial grade).
But very acceptable gear
When hunting the hedgehog my eldest mislaid
(I hope the connection is clear).

Now, as to my seemingly loveless condition.
A poet should not think it odd
That a woman who's come to the point of fruition
Didn't fiddle the thing on her tod.

I work at a mill for the grinding of grain,
Where everything tends to be white.
So, when you next pass in the 3.20 train
Use a spy-glass and get the thing right.

- AB Gething

- Ray

1 comment:

  1. I am reminded of Tolkien's musing on the power of adjectives in "On Fairy Stories," where he asks his mother why he couldn't tell a story about a "green great dragon" as opposed to a "great green dragon." Adjectives are magic!

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