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The Unusual Syntax of “Sexiest Man Alive”

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In the wake of People magazine’s announcement of its choice for this year’s “Sexiest Man Alive,” our thoughts, naturally, turn to the unusual syntax of this phrase.

Why “alive”? Isn’t that a given? Not quite. After all, this is not a competition between all the sexy men of history. That would be ridiculous, not to mention very hard to judge. “Alive” narrows the field, takes Gary Cooper and Alexander the Great out of the running. Let the dead men have their own competition.

However, “Sexiest Man Dead”? That doesn’t work, and the fact that it doesn’t reveals something interesting about the syntax of the phrase.

“Sexiest man” can be modified in various ways. It can take a prepositional phrase (Sexiest Man in the World, Sexiest Man with a Frog Tattoo, Sexiest Man in the Dentist’s Waiting Room). It can take a verb in the –ing form (the Sexiest Man Graduating, the Sexiest Man Flossing) or passive past participle form (the Sexiest Man Elected, the Sexiest Man Eaten by an Anaconda). It can also take a full relative clause (the Sexiest Man who Rides the 8:55 Train). Alive is none of those things. It’s an adjective, and this construction does not work with other adjectives, dead included. The Sexiest Man Blond? The Sexiest Man Canadian? (We’re talking simple adjectives, not those derived from verb participles, like elected above.)

So why is “alive” the only adjective that fits in this construction? Actually, there is a small set of other adjectives that also work here, and the thing they have in common is etymological history. Alive originated in the Old English phrase on life. It was a prepositional phrase, one that got reanalyzed along the way into a single word, an adjective.

The other phrases that underwent this change are on flote, an slæpe, and on waecnan. In their current forms, they work beautifully in the “Sexiest Man” construction. Really, some magazine should judge a winner for these categories too:

“Sexiest Man Afloat!”
“Sexiest Man Asleep!”
“Sexiest Man Awake!”

Adrift, formed on analogy with afloat also works, as do a few other words where the initial a- can be traced back to the meaning “on”: afire, aflame, ablaze.

Do you like hot guys? Well, you’re gonna love the Sexiest Man Ablaze!

There are some words that can be traced back to an on/a- phrase, however, that don’t sound right in the “Sexiest Man” frame because the part joined to the a- is too unrecognizable. Sexiest Man Aghast? (From gast, “to frighten.”) Aloof? (From luff “windward part of a ship.") And the words that we borrowed from French with the a- prefix already attached don’t sound quite right either. Sexiest Man Alert? Afraid? Agog? Not all a- prefixed adjectives will be suitable partners for a “Sexiest Man.” History and transparency matter.

So congratulations, Chris Hemsworth, on receiving this honor and once again bringing this linguistically fascinating phrase together for our inspection. In the firmament of Hollywood stars, may you remain the sexiest man ablaze, and on the sea of celebrity career striving may you remain the sexiest man afloat. At least until next year.

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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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Designer Reimagines the Spanish Alphabet With Only 19 Letters
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According to designer José de la O, the Spanish alphabet is too crowded. Letters like B and V and S and Z are hard to tell apart when spoken out loud, which makes for a language that's "confusing, complicated, and unpractical," per his design agency's website. His solution is Nueva Qwerty. As Co.Design reports, the "speculative alphabet" combines redundant letters into single characters, leaving 19 letters total.

In place of the letters missing from the original 27-letter Spanish alphabet are five new symbols. The S slot, for example, is occupied by one letter that does the job of C, Z, and S. Q, K, and C have been merged into a single character, as have I and Y. The design of each glyph borrows elements from each of the letters it represents, making the new alphabet easy for Spanish-speakers to learn, its designer says.

Speculative Spanish alphabet.
José de la O

By streamlining the Spanish alphabet, de la O claims he's made it easier to read, write, and type. But the convenience factor may not be enough to win over some Spanish scholars: When the Royal Spanish Academy cut just two letters (CH and LL) from the Spanish alphabet in 2010, their decision was met with outrage.

José de la O has already envisioned how his alphabet might function in the real world, Photoshopping it onto storefronts and newspapers. He also showcased the letters in two new fonts. You can install New Times New Roman and Futurysma onto your computer after downloading it here.

[h/t Co.Design]

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