Wednesday, 30 December 2009

More fierce and most fierce of all...

Professor Arnold Zwicky at Language Log - see Inflected Adj/Adv - commented recently on the phenomenon of people objecting to superlatives on certain adjectives. That is, they'll say that adjectiver and adjectivest aren't words, and that more adjective and most adjective must be used. In some cases, this reflects genuine rarity: constructs that are totally unidiomatic. More often, though, it's an arbitrary judgement going against solid evidence of usage. Professor Zwicky offers the following list of words about which this complaint has been documented...

bitter, clever, common, cross, fond, highly, ill, often, open, pleasant, quickly, real, right, serious, solid, strict, stupid, vast, winning, wrong

... and asked for more examples seen in the wild. I just ran into one on Yahoo! Answers:

Fierce, Fiercer, Fiercest, are the last two even words?

Fiercer and fiercest just don't sound right to my ears. Shouldn't it be "fierce, more fierce and most fierce"? I heard these words used on the history channel and it is bothering me, they don't sound right.

It seemed so weird that I couldn't resist debunking it, along with a response that "fiercer" and "fiercest" are down to recent decline of the language. Actually, both words come with the highest credentials and a long history.

"Secure from Flames, from Envy's fiercer rage" - Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism
"The fiercer the fight, still the fiercer we grow" - Robert Southey
"But what can shield my heart from fiercer love?" - James Boswell
"The storm grew fiercer and fiercer" - Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
"And hurl her thunderbolts with fiercer hand!" - Samuel Taylor Coleridge
"This continued, growing fiercer and fiercer" - Ulysses S Grant, Personal Memoirs
"wilder and wilder, and fiercer and fiercer" - Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad
" I dealt too flippantly with the fiercer kind of Suffragette" - GK Chesterton
"The wind came through the tree fiercer and fiercer" - DH Lawrence, Sons and Lovers
"a Kanga was Generally Regarded as One of the Fiercer Animals" - AA Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
"and the sun was fiercer every minute" - George Orwell, Burmese Days

"the strongest and the fiercest spirit" - Milton, Paradise Lost
"strike terror even into the fiercest creatures" - Robinson Crusoe again
"Madness - fiercest madness" - PB Shelley, Zastrozzi
"In one of the fiercest of these repeated assaults" - Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
"At length the fiercest heart will quail" - Thoreau
"put on their fiercest looks to stare all comers out of countenance" - Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby
" his temper was of the hottest and fiercest" - Dickens again, The Mystery of Edwin Drood
"He had the bluest, fiercest, most pointed eyes" - DH Lawrence, The Rainbow

My case rests.


  1. > My case rests.

    Hmmm ... can a case "rest"?

    (Only joking!!! :-)

  2. Who writes the rules? We're not like the Frenchiest of countries with their police de la langue and Academy. Who draws the line in this blogiest of worlds (and when do you double the last consanant?)

  3. Who writes the rules?

    Anyone of sufficient prestige who wants to it, I guess. There's a fluid body of usage (with all its variants): some patterns can be observed in that and called rules. That would be the descriptivist overview. But on top of that, people regularly invent rules based on their own preferences - classically, 17th/18th century pundits like Dryden and Bishop Lowth did this - and if sufficiently influential, these get propagated down the line as shibboleths of class and education.

    Long story, and not entirely to the discredit of the prescriptivists. At the time, given knowledge of languages, it was logical to think English a degraded language, with originally strict grammar, that needed tidying up, because that model had worked reasonably well for analysing the grammars of Latin and Greek. I've got a paper somewhere I'll dig out in 2010.

  4. Ever since reading this post, an inane, probably inaner, possibly inanest chant thingy has been rattling around in the empty, emptier, emptiest spaces in my skull:

    | Good, better, best,
    | May I never rest
    | Til my good is better
    | And my better best.

    I shall have to listen to some repetitive pop, see if I can dislodge it :-)

  5. Eight, sir; seven sir;
    Six, sir; five, sir;
    Four, sir; three, sir;
    Two, sir; one!
    Tenser, said the Tensor.
    Tenser, said the Tensor.
    Tension, apprehension,
    And dissension have begun.

  6. The demolished man!!